Your Brain Is A DJ Playing Three Songs At Once

Psychologist John Bargh explains how the field of psychology is trying to make up for missed time after centuries of being overlooked.

The following is an excerpt from Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do by John Bargh.

Book cover of Before You Know It

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Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do


The Three Time Zones

Until recently, it was not possible to systematically and rigorously test how the unconscious affects our thoughts and actions. Scientists only had theories, case studies from clinical patients, and patchy experimental evidence, which naturally fueled an ongoing debate. The idea of unconscious parts of the mind, mental processes operating without our awareness, existed long before Freud. Darwin, for example, used it repeatedly in his 1859 magnum opus, On the Origin of Species, to refer to how the farmers and breeders of his day unconsciously used the principles of natural selection to grow larger ears of corn and breed fatter cows and woollier sheep. He meant that the farmers and breeders were not aware of the reason why what they did worked or of the underlying mechanism behind it—and they were especially unaware of the larger implications of the natural selection mechanism in regard to religious beliefs about the supernatural creation of the world, including all its animals and plants. Later in the nineteenth century, Eduard von Hartmann published a book called the Philosophy of the Unconscious, which amounted to nothing more than rampant speculation about the mind and its inner workings, with no data and a scarcity of logic and common sense to boot. This book became very popular and had already been republished nine times by 1884. William James, one of the fathers of modern psychology, disliked Von Hartmann’s completely unscientific account of the unconscious regions of the mind, so much so that it provoked his famous dismissal of the unconscious as “a tumbling ground for whimsies.” Yet twenty years later, after meeting Sigmund Freud for the first time and hearing him give a talk on the meaning of dreams, James was favorably impressed with the medical approach to the unconscious mind and told Freud his work was the future of psychology. James appreciated Freud’s efforts to move beyond easy armchair speculations to close clinical observations and interventions to alleviate his patients’ distress and symptoms.

But then, just a few years after this first and only meeting between these two titans of psychology, James and Freud, came a seismic reaction from the scientific establishment of the time against the study of the mind. The conscious reports by participants in psychology studies about their internal experience, called introspection, were not considered reliable sources of evidence, because the same person would report different things at different times when faced with the same circumstances. (Indeed, one of the themes of this book is our human lack of accurate introspective access and knowledge about how our mind works—yet the scientists of the time were relying on their study participants to be able to report accurately on how their minds worked.) In 1913, John B. Watson famously stated that scientific psychology should therefore not attempt to study thought and conscious experience at all. The consequence of this was catastrophic. As Arthur Koestler wrote in his devastating 1967 critique of behaviorism, The Ghost in the Machine, Watson and the behaviorists had made a colossal logical error that caused the study of the mind—whether conscious or unconscious—to be excluded from scientific psychology for the next fifty years. As Koestler notes, this was a time when the other sciences, in stark contrast, were making tremendous advances. The dominant “behaviorist” school of psychology as founded by Watson argued vehemently that we were entirely the product of our environment. What we saw, heard, and touched—and little else—determined the things we did. We went through life much like rats that could learn to press a bar in order to get food. Consciousness was an illusion, an epiphenomenon that might seem real to us but played no active role in our lives. This extreme view was, of course, wrong. In the 1960s, a new paradigm came into vogue—cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychologists sought to debunk the notion that we were nothing more than sophisticated lab rats and argued that our conscious choices did matter. In giving free will back to us, however, and in fighting so hard against the powerful, entrenched behaviorist establishment, cognitive psychologists swung to the other extreme. They argued that our behavior is almost always under intentional and conscious control and rarely if ever triggered by environmental cues. This different extreme position is also wrong. The truth resides somewhere between these two poles, and can only be understood after we consider the most basic condition of existence for all life on our planet—time.

The overarching premise of this book is that the mind—just as Einstein argued was true of the entire universe—exists simultaneously in the past, the present, and the future. Our conscious experience is the sum of these three parts as they interact inside one individual brain. What constitutes the mind’s coexisting time zones, however, is less straightforward than it might seem. Or rather, one layer is quite easy to identify, while the others are not.

The unhidden past, present, and future are right there in our daily experience. At any moment, we can voluntarily pluck memories from the immense archive warehoused in the brain, some of which retain an extraordinary vividness. Memories also occasionally seek us out, triggered by some association that springs the past on us as if a movie screen had unfurled in front of the mind’s eye. And if we take the time to reflect—or have an inquisitive partner or go into therapy—we are capable of uncovering the ways the past shapes our present thoughts and actions. Meanwhile, we remain aware of the ever-continuing present. Every waking second, we experience life as it meets our five senses—sights, smells, tastes, sounds, textures. The human brain evolved so that we could respond usefully to the things that happen around us, as they happen in the present. So we devote a tremendous amount of neural resources to making smart behavioral decisions in a shifting world that we can’t control. Eons of evolution shaped the gray matter between our ears into a staggeringly sophisticated command center. Think about it: the human brain constitutes on average 2 percent of a person’s total body weight but consumes about 20 percent of the energy we use while awake. (Now that you’ve thought about it, you might want to get something to eat.)

Our imagined futures, however, we can control. We actively pursue ambitions, desires, and milestones—that prized promotion, that dream vacation, that home for our family. These thoughts at play in our minds aren’t any more hidden than the past or present. How could they be? We came up with them ourselves.

It is indisputable, then, that our conscious awareness feeds us a substantial, meaningful meal of experience. But much, much more is happening in the mind than is immediately visible in these three time zones. We also have a hidden past, a hidden present, and a hidden future, all influencing us before we know it.

The human organism evolved with the mandate to stay alive and thereby keep reproducing. Everything else—religion, civilization, 1970s progressive rock—came after. The hard-won lessons of our species’ survival constitute our hidden past, endowing us with automatic “protocols” that persist today, though we naturally have no personal memory of the immense ancestral history that produced such traits. For example, if a bus is coming at you, you know to jump out of the way, and your nervous system helps you do so without your having to order it to start pumping the adrenaline. Similarly, if someone you’re attracted to leans in to kiss you, you know to meet that kiss. Half a century ago, Princeton professor George Miller pointed out that if we had to do everything consciously, we’d never be able to get out of bed in the morning. (That’s often hard enough as it is.) If you had to painstakingly decide which muscle to move, and do so in the correct order, you would be overwhelmed. In the helter-skelter hustle of each day, we don’t have the luxury to reflect carefully on the best response in each and every moment, so our unconsciously operating evolutionary past provides a streamlined system that saves us time and energy. As we will soon explore, however, it also guides our behavior in other important, less obvious ways—for instance, in such things as dating and immigration policy.

The present as it exists in the mind also contains much more than what we consciously perceive as we commute to work, spend time with our families, or stare at our smartphones (and sometimes as we do all three at once, though I don’t advise this). My research over the years, as well as that of my colleagues, has revealed that there is a hidden present that affects nearly everything we do: the products we buy (and how many) while grocery shopping, our facial expressions and gestures when getting to know new people, our performance in tests and job interviews. Though it may seem otherwise, what we think and do in such situations is not entirely under our conscious control. Depending on the hidden forces acting on our mind’s present at any given moment, we buy different products (and in different quantities), interact with others in different ways, and perform differently. We also have our trusty hunches, instincts, and gut reactions that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about in his book Blink. The malleability of our minds in the present means that “blink” responses are in fact considerably more fallible than many of us think. By learning how they really work in our brain, however, we can strengthen our ability to recognize good and bad hunches.

Then there is the hidden future. We have hopes, dreams, and goals toward which we orient our minds and lives, as well as fears, anxieties, and worries about the future that we sometimes can’t banish from our thoughts. These ideas coursing through our neural pathways exert a remarkable, invisible sway over us. What we want and need strongly determine what we like and don’t like. For example, one notable experiment showed that when women are prompted to think about finding a mate to settle down with, their disapproval of tanning salons and diet pills (ostensible ways to strengthen attraction) decrease. Why? Because we unconsciously see the world through goal-colored glasses. The tanning salons and diet pills are suddenly a good thing when our mind is unconsciously focused on becoming more attractive in order to find a mate. This invisible future also affects who we like and don’t like. If you are focused on your career, you feel a greater emotional connection with people you link to your professional goals. Conversely, if you are more concerned with having fun, a different flavor of person will attract you. In other words, friends—as well as other aspects of life—are often a function of our unconscious goals, our hidden future. Examining how our desires can stealthily influence our lives allows us to better arrange our true priorities and values.

Past. Present. Future. The mind exists in all time zones at once, both its hidden operations and its visible ones. It is a kind of multidimensional time warp, even if it gives us a feeling of smooth, linear experience. None of us, not even the most adept practitioners of meditation, is ever only in the present. Nor would we want to be.

In essence, the mind operates much like the stereo equipment I used while deejaying at WPGU in the 1970s, except the overlays are much trickier and the sound mixers have more active inputs. It is as if three songs are always playing. The main song (the present) plays the loudest—let’s say “Heartbreaker,” because it’s Zeppelin at their best—while the other two (past and future) are constantly fading in and out and slyly changing the overall sound. The slippery nuance is this: in the hidden depths of your mind, there are important lyrics, melodies, and backbeats that you aren’t aware of. Even when they are most strongly altering the overall character of the song you’re listening to, you rarely know to listen for them.

The aim of this book is to put you inside the DJ booth of your mind so that you hear better what is really going on and can start controlling the music yourself.

From the book Before You Know It by John Bargh. Copyright © 2017 by John Bargh. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Meet the Writer

About John Bargh

John Bargh is the James Rowland Angell Professor of Psychology and Director of the Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation (ACME) Laboratory at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.