A thought about memory and intention

Imagine that you are reading at 3pm and you suddenly remember that you have a pressing appointment at 4pm. The thought simply pops into your mind, and completely surprises you. What’s curious about this example is that the process of remembering was carried out without your intending it to happen. You did not do the remembering as your conscious mind was focusing on reading and understanding the text. It was the nonconscious mind which did the remembering, and then forced the results of its processing into the input-tray for consciousness. As you were reading, your nonconscious mind informed the conscious mind that it had just carried out a remembering process and that the result of the process is the content that you have a pressing appointment at 4pm. Your consciousness then completely reroutes itself and starts to focus on the process of getting to the appointment on time.

I like this example because it illustrates how there are many mental processes being carried out below the surface of consciousness. We usually think that remembering is something we consciously do. In a way this could be analytically true if we simply defined remembering as requiring our consciousness to be involved. But if we didn’t define remembering in this way, then we get the interesting idea that crucially important mental activities like remembering can happen below the surface of consciousness. Often, the results of these nonconscious processes are never even introduced into consciousness, and directly influence the behavior of the body without our conscious awareness. But sometimes the end-products of the nonconscious mental processes are loaded into consciousness and our conscious mind becomes aware of the content and is now able to start performing conscious operations on the content, which often involve the narratization of the content into a folk psychological story (often causal, involving reasons), which then has top-down effects on the entire behavior of the system e.g. the narratization of the nonconscious remembering process about the appointment enables the conscious rumination of behavior possibilities and allows for a shortcut in the decision making process through the higher-order linguistic categorization of the appointment in terms of simpler, more abstract categorical structures and schemas like “4:00pm”,”get documents”, “find keys”,”get in car”,”take highway”, “second floor”.

These abstract categorical structures allow for the construction of a mental narrative-schema through which consciousness acts and is able to influence the world. We become capable of consciously thinking thoughts like “Shoot! My appointment is at 4pm, I better get ready now and take the highway so I can make it on time.” Thoughts like these provide decision-making shortcuts and start a chain-reaction of reciprocal information exchange between the conscious and nonconscious systems. The tight functional loops between these systems give rise to complex and fluid human behaviors, such as scrambling to get ready and driving a car to make a pressing social appointment.

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