Medicine for the Masses

John Bargh – Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do (Touchstone Books)

I was dying to read this book: Before You Know It authored by Experimental Psychologist, John Bargh. However, I was cautious when the opening line read as follows:

“In college, I majored in psychology and minored in Led Zeppelin. Or maybe it was the other way around”…

Thankfully, I persevered, and although the Led Zep references did reoccur occasionally (making me kind of gag each time), it really did pay off. The project is a huge success. Bargh has done a wonderful job of pulling together such a wealth of research – a lot of which he performed — in such a narratologically pleasing, accessible, and insightful manner. He is likable, if at times he comes across sounding like a cringe-inducing dad. The book is deeply engaging in that it is so relatable and Bargh writes in a kind of welcoming, conversational while thoroughly informed tone. He cites countless experiments without sounding blandly reportive.

I must admit that my opinion isn’t exactly bias-free. I wrote a thesis regarding the application of neuroscientific theory to literature criticism and so I have been reading any and every book on neuroscience that I can get my hands on. Bargh’s ideology is right up my street – he even uses the same analogy for readdressing the way that we think that I used in my dissertation.

Bargh says, “learning to see what is hidden, we acquire a new set of eyes. Or maybe just a new pair of prescription glasses we hadn’t realised we’d needed.” My own work reads: “If our vision is blurry or our eyes strain we put on glasses so that we can see differently – better. If they don’t work we get a new prescription. If our vision changes we adapt the lenses. We don’t walk around with the same blurred views. Open up those windows. It’s about opening the closed mind.” This idea of developing fresh eyes really resonates with me, and I think it is one that could help a lot of people broaden their minds.

If Bargh’s literary capacity is sometimes swamped by the conceptual weight of what he is saying, this does not negate the validity of the concepts themselves. Like most social scientists he has a tendency to repeat himself until a point is at risk of losing its appeal. The concepts are sometimes lost in trailing sentence structures and unconvincing metaphors – for example, he describes a dream he had about an alligator turning over to reveal its soft underbelly as an analogy for turning his thinking upside-down. He talks about that alligator a lot. Forget the damn alligator.

For a book that so successfully conveys the subjective nature of the unconscious, it seems strange that it does not occur to Bargh that his alligator may only hold significance to him. It muddies the point and comes across as a candied technique to engage the reader. But, essentially, he is proving his own theories as he writes. Bargh’s recognition of the subjectivity of significance is well-evidence elsewhere.

I cannot help but apply Bargh’s research and proposed conclusions to my own life and my own subconscious reactions. I imagine that this is the point. Bargh explains that metaphors are rooted in neuro-physical responses — such as “cold-shoulder” and “warm person,” meaning that we actually feel the physical sensation which leads us to describe things in terms of temperature. I have come to suspect that the reason my temperature seems to swing from high to low at the drop of a hat has something to do with my emotional dysregulation.

What Bargh offers is medicine for the masses. One of my favourite parts of the book was the study revealing the ways in which fear motivates a lot of our important decisions and behaviours. Bargh says that “Under threat or fear people are less risk-taking and they resist change” and he shows us that we must not be afraid of change. He demonstrates how our memory “can be fooled by recent experience, but also by the fact that we pay selective attention to some things and not to others.” And perhaps most importantly, the book begs us to question our assumptions, to question in general. Bargh’s suggestions for lines of enquiry include:

“On any given day, how much of what we say, feel, and do is under our conscious control? More important, how much is not? And most crucial of all: if we understood how our unconscious worked – if we knew why we do what we do – could we finally, fundamentally know ourselves? Could insights into our hidden drivers unlock different ways of thinking, feeling, and acting? What might this mean for our lives?”

And one of my own:

Is it because I am depressed that I don’t like salad?

Bargh urges us to see that new ideas will only surface if we are amenable to them – that if you want to achieve something you must open up your mind to the possibility of doing so. I think that this ideology needs to be taught to people at an early age so that they can achieve a better level of control over their lives. The world might be a much better place if people were better educated about the processes of their own brains.

– Blair James


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