Know Thyself, Educate the Unconscious: The Unthinkable

Have you ever arrived at work and wondered how did I get here? Have you ever promised: not to eat another piece of cake and here you are eating one; or not to drink another beer, and here you are with one in your hand? Have you ever solved a problem and had no idea how you did? These experiences may have caused you to ask who am I anyway and that’s a good question. You may have asked where did these urges or thoughts come from and that’s another good question.

The Ancient Greek saying, KNOW THYSELF, was written on the Temple Apollo walls at Delphi and Socrates one of the most famous philosophers, advised the unexamined life is not worth living. I guess there is nothing new under the sun. Harvard and Stanford business schools put a priority on development of leaders self knowledge[1]. But what does it mean and what does one have to do to know oneself? As you can imagine this is not a simple question since we are still talking about it a few 1000 years after Socrates.

To complicate things, recent neuroscience is discovering the unconscious plays a foundational role in our conscious lives. For example, Cotterill[2] said: consciousness is merely an “indispensable servant of the unconscious”. That is: consciousness provides information regarding “the significance of its intended action” while the unconscious chooses the action to be taken. So our conscious mind is a servant of the unconscious mind. Not only that, according to Lakoff & Johnson, “unconscious thought is 95% of all thought—and that may be a serious underestimate” and “unless we know our cognitive unconscious fully and intimately, we can neither know ourselves nor truly understand the basis of our moral judgments, our conscious deliberations, and our philosophy”[3]. They also said:

  • Reason is not disembodied, … but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience;
  • Reason is not completely conscious, but mostly unconscious;
  • Reason is not purely literal, but largely metaphorical and imaginative, and
  • Reason is not dispassionate, but emotionally engaged3.

These observations put into question the kind of education where learning is seen as a matter of depositing information into the heads of students for later retrieval. The idea that something of value is contained within the unconscious poses a challenge. After all, isn’t the unconscious the dreaded, dangerous, dark side, a frightening heart of darkness, off limits for discussion and exploration. How can we overcome this view and explore the unconscious? Further, what kind of instruction might we use to educate the unconscious. After all isn’t the unconscious by definition unavailable to our conscious mind? How should we incorporate into education the ideas that reason is mostly unconscious, metaphorical and embodied? For example, how about teaching scientists to meditate, dance, write poetry or use their imagination to improve their reasoning and creative abilities. To those of us who are used to thinking of science as a rational, logical step by step process this sounds crazy. But this is only one question arising from these findings. To know ourselves and truly understand the basis of our moral judgments, our conscious deliberations, and our philosophy we need to penetrate and educate the dark unthinkable unconscious.

[1] Showry, M., & Manasa, K. V. L. (2014). Self-awareness-key to effective leadership. IUP Journal of Soft Skills, 8(1), 15.

[2] Cotterill, R. (p. 344, 1998). Enchanted looms: Conscious networks in brains and computers. Cambridge, U K: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (p. 4, 1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. New York: Basic Books.

Tom Culham teaches TRANSFORMATION THROUGH ETHICAL LEADERSHIP, A certificate program designed for Executive and Middle Management Leadership, offered through CityU’s Continuing Education programs. You can learn more about the next series beginning February 28, 2018 HERE. The program is taught over 5 consecutive Wednesdays 9am – 1pm, Feb 28 – Mar 28. Download a program flyer HERE.

Tom Culham, Ph.D., Program Director School of Management City University in Canada Co-Chair, Contemplative Inquiry and Holistic Education, Special Interest Group of the Comparative International Education Society. Representative at Large Research, Management, Spirituality and Religion Special Interest Group of the Academy of Management.