Very few of the ideas introduced in the first class of "Rest of You" were entirely new to me. I used to have an intellectual interest in neuroscience, and read a lot about it. Last time I was in grad school I took a cognitive science class about the hard problem of consciousness, where we learned about recent research such as the brain imaging showing that the motor cortex fires before conscious awareness.
However, I had not thought so directly before about the link between this understanding of the brain and the degree of control which our unconscious has over our lives. It is a scary thing to think about how little of what we do is consciously directed, but also potentially liberating. It is liberating because often, we blame the external world for failures in our life, when the blame more properly rests with our own unconscious. In cognitive psychotherapy there is a concept of the "limiting belief." These are beliefs about ourselves or the world that are untrue but that we take as immutable facts. We do not even recognize our limiting beliefs as being beliefs, and until we do we cannot question them. As a result, they shape our lives invisibly, and limit us from fulfilling our full potential. Carl Jung expressed a parallel idea:
Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
(To be honest, although this quote is frequently attributed to Jung, I cannot find a citation for it, so perhaps it is apocryphal. However, it is consistent with his ideas about the unconscious.)
I have recently become very interested in Jungian psychology. Unlike Freud, who saw the unconscious solely as a place where trauma is repressed, Jung saw the unconscious as a creative force as well. To Jung, the unconscious may hold our traumas, and our Shadow - the dark parts of ourselves that we don't want to see, but it is also the source for new ideas, including the capacity to heal from trauma. Jung had a rather mystical approach to his philosophy, but current neuroscience seems to me to align with his conception of the unconscious as a potentially creative force. Yes, our automatic habits and limiting beliefs and biases operate below consciousness. But so does our creativity - we cannot synthesize a new idea by the slow, step-by-step process of "System 2" thinking. Rather, synthesis happens somewhere below, and then enters our consciousness. Anyone who has ever had a sudden flash of insight knows this. Speaking from my own experience, starting ITP has given me both the opportunity and the need to be creative on a regular basis. With this practice, I have begun to develop a skill for the creative process - but this skill is always a matter of letting go, of using various techniques to shut off my analytical train of thought and allow insights or new possibilities to rise up from the unconscious.
Still, the unconscious is also a place where limiting beliefs are stored. I am someone who constantly strives towards growth and self-transformation, and it is important to me that I discover and overturn false beliefs that might limit me. Blackmore's writings on memetics particularly resonated with me here. How much of my beliefs about the world, conscious or unconscious, are merely memes passed to me from society? For that matter, how much of what we all collectively take as fact is a meme? Is the concept of objective truth itself simply a meme? Considering our minds as simply vehicles for memes to spread and evolve is more disconcerting even than considering how powerful the unconscious is, because it forces us to reconsider not only ourselves, but everything we know. If everything we know is memes, we might say that dominant ideas such as scientific facts are particularly successful memes, but there is no prima facie reason to believe that "successful" maps to "truthfully describes the real, external world."
However, just like understanding the unconscious can be liberating, understanding memetics can be liberating. If we have any free will at all, but are also vessels for memes, we ought to ask ourselves: do the memes that I am carrying serve me? Or do they fail me, limit me, or harm me? If the latter, where did they come from? How can I get rid of them, and stop spreading them? Where can I find memes that serve me better? - a particularly relevant question in an age of information overload, where we must all carefully choose which sources we trust.
I can think of two particular angles I might take for a project in this class.
I would be interested in more carefully tracking memes that I carry - specifically, in trying to find patterns in my thinking so that I can identify false or limiting beliefs. Technology does present some opportunity here. I already use non-digital means to do this, such as recording thoughts in a journal, or just trying to be more mindful of my thoughts and question whether they are to be trusted. The former is inconsistent, and the latter lives entirely in my own subjective experience. With computing, I could apply various analysis algorithms to, for instance, identity common thoughts and relationships between them. However, for doing that I would need to large and consistent data - a digital record of my thoughts which I am constantly updating. The very process of recording my thoughts for the project would have psychological effects, becoming a cognitive therapy exercise. That could be beneficial in and of itself, but it undermines the role of the technology if the process of recording thoughts turns out to give me more insight than computerized analysis. A further challenge is the sheer time burden of recording thoughts, and the need to constantly interrupt my activities to do so. I would have to strike a balance between gathering enough data for the analysis to be effective, and being a small enough commitment that I stick with it even when I'm busy or stressed. Obviously, it would impossible to record everything I think. It might be more doable if I were to narrow focus to either a specific topic - such as negative thoughts regarding a particular area of my life, or a specific trigger - that is, what do I think when a particular thing happens, or during a particular emotional state?
An alternative for many people would be to look for thought-patterns in one's digital footprint - social media, text messages, etc. However, I don't text a lot and rarely post on social media - and avoiding social media in particular has been great for my mental health and time management, so I don't want to change that.
However, a final challenge to this project is that many of the topics I would most like to analyze about my own thinking are deeply personal. So to be most useful to me, this project would probably also be something which I would not want to document or share with the class.
A second angle is that I am particularly interested in the relationship between the unconscious and the body. I have been trying recently to develop greater awareness of my own body. I am currently working with a therapist whose approach centers on mindfulness and the body, and during January term I took a modern dance class which taught theory and exercises focused on gaining bodily awareness. I am starting to see how, for instance, feelings of anxiety, self-consciousness, or stress correspond with a dissociation from my body, and how movement or bodily awareness can relieve some of them. There is a trade-off in awareness between my body and my thoughts - by becoming mindful of my body, often with the help of movement, I can stop spinning in anxious thoughts or rumination.
Additionally, I live with chronic pain in my pelvis, and past physical therapy has revealed to me the role of muscle tightness in that pain, as well as the link between the pain and negative emotions. Those of a New Age mindset would say that I have stored negative energy in that area. Whether you see that as truth or as a useful metaphor, I certainly notice the way in which low mood increases muscle tightness there, and most of all makes it difficult for me to consciously relax or be more mindful of that part of my body.
So, my project would start with those electrical sensors that can measure muscle tightness. I would measure either across the pelvic floor, or across the shoulders - I have particularly noticed tightness in my shoulders to correlate with self-consciousness or social anxiety. The first step would be tracking that tightness throughout the day. I would look for what insight might be gained by comparing the data to my mood throughout the day, or to specific events that affected me emotionally. A second step might be to add some kind of biofeedback component, which would alert me when my muscles were tightening, hopefully prompting me to consciously relax, and maybe over time training me to be better at relaxing.