Imagine you are standing on the prow of a sailboat, watching a school of dolphins leaping left and right. When traveling long distances, jumping saves dolphins energy, because there’s less friction in the air than in the water below. It also seems to be an efficient way to move rapidly and breathe at the same time. Typically, the animals will alternate long, ballistic jumps with bouts of swimming underwater, close to the top, for about twice the length of the leap – a spectacular, high-speed, surface-piercing display sometimes known as ‘porpoising’.
These cetacean acrobatics are a fruitful metaphor for what happens when we think. What most of us still call ‘our conscious thoughts’ are really like dolphins in our mind, jumping briefly out of the ocean of our unconscious for a short period before they submerge themselves once again. This ‘dolphin model of cognition’ helps us to understand the limits of our awareness. For example, the windows of time in which these leaps into consciousness unfold (as well as subsequent ‘underwater’ processing) vary hugely. And similar to the way that dolphins break the surface of the water, thoughts often cross the border between conscious and unconscious processing, and in both directions. Sometimes individual dolphins are so close to the surface that they can be half in and half out of the water; you might actually be able to learn how to spot them right before they jump, just as you can learn to identify subtle, semi-conscious patterns before they manifest as full-blown thoughts and feelings. There might even be more than one dolphin: in all likelihood, there’s a whole race going on between our thoughts, a continuous inner competition for the focus of attention and for what finally seizes control over our behavior.
The point is that the mental contents available to us via introspection are nothing more than momentary flashes of automatic cognitive processing, grinding away beneath the waves of our awareness most of the time. This raises a strange question: who is the ‘us’, standing at the prow and watching these dolphin-thoughts scoot past? Philosophers of mind often fall into the trap of assuming that goal-directed, rational thought is the paradigmatic case of conscious cognition. But if we are only ever partly aware of what is happening in our own minds, surely we can’t be in absolute command of our thoughts, let alone causing them? Is it ever possible to distinguish mental actions, which we can direct and select, from the more general category of mental events, which simply happen to us? In what sense are we ever genuinely mental agents, capable of acting freely, as opposed to being buffeted by forces beyond our control?
One of the most exciting recent research fields in neuroscience and experimental psychology is mind-wandering – the study of spontaneous or task-unrelated thoughts. Its results have radical implications for politics, education and morality. If we consider the empirical findings, we arrive at a surprising result of profound philosophical significance: cognitive control is the exception, while its absence is the rule. Much of the time we like to describe some foundational ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth. In fact, we only resemble something like this for about a third of our conscious lifetime. We don’t exactly know when and how children first learn to do it, and it’s plausible that many of us gradually lose it towards the end of our lives. As far as our inner life is concerned, the science of mind-wandering implies that we’re only rarely autonomous persons.
Mind-wandering research suggests that we need to get rid of naive, black-and-white distinctions such as ‘free will’ versus ‘determinism’, ‘conscious’ versus ‘unconscious’, and what philosophers call ‘personal’ versus ‘sub-personal’ processes (roughly, accounts of cognition that look at the whole person’s reasons and beliefs, versus those based on biological or physiological functions). As the dolphin story hints, human beings are not Cartesian egos capable of complete self-determination. Nor are we primitive, robotic automata. Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behavior. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.
The really interesting question then becomes: how do various thoughts and actions ‘surface’, and what’s the mechanism by which we corral them and make them our own? We ought to probe how our organism turns different sub-personal events into thoughts or states that appear to belong to ‘us’ as a whole, and how we can learn to control them more effectively and efficiently. This capacity creates what I call mental autonomy, and I believe it is the neglected ethical responsibility of government and society to help citizens cultivate it.