Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

by N. Katherine Hayles

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N. Katherine Hayles is known for breaking new ground at the intersection of the sciences and the humanities. In Unthought, she once again bridges disciplines by revealing how we think without thinking—how we use cognitive processes that are inaccessible to consciousness yet necessary for it to function.

Marshalling fresh insights from neuroscience, cognitive science, cognitive biology, and literature, Hayles expands our understanding of cognition and demonstrates that it involves more than consciousness alone. Cognition, as Hayles defines it, is applicable not only to nonconscious processes in humans but to all forms of life, including unicellular organisms and plants. Startlingly, she also shows that cognition operates in the sophisticated information-processing abilities of technical systems: when humans and cognitive technical systems interact, they form “cognitive assemblages”—as found in urban traffic control, drones, and the trading algorithms of finance capital, for instance—and these assemblages are transforming life on earth. The result is what Hayles calls a “planetary cognitive ecology,” which includes both human and technical actors and which poses urgent questions to humanists and social scientists alike.

At a time when scientific and technological advances are bringing far-reaching aspects of cognition into the public eye, Unthought reflects deeply on our contemporary situation and moves us toward a more sustainable and flourishing environment for all beings.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226447919
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 04/05/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 408 KB

About the Author

N. Katherine Hayles is the James B. Duke Professor of Literature at Duke University. She is the author of many books, including, most recently, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious

By N. Katherine Hayles

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-44791-9


Nonconscious Cognitions: Humans and Others

Rooted in anthropocentric projection, the perception that consciousness and advanced thinking necessarily go together has centuries, if not millennia, of tradition behind it. Recently, however, a broad-based reassessment of the limitations of consciousness has led to a correspondingly broad revision of the functions performed by other cognitive capacities and the critical roles they play in human neurological processes. Consciousness occupies a central position in our thinking not because it is the whole of cognition but because it creates the (sometimes fictitious) narratives that make sense of our lives and support basic assumptions about worldly coherence. Cognition, by contrast, is a much broader capacity that extends far beyond consciousness into other neurological brain processes; it is also pervasive in other life forms and complex technical systems. Although the cognitive capacity that exists beyond consciousness goes by various names, I call it nonconscious cognition.

Perhaps no areas are more rife with terminological disparities than those dealing with consciousness; rather than sort through centuries of confusions, I will try to make clear how I am using the terms and attempt to do so consistently throughout. "Consciousness," as I use the term, comprises core or primary consciousness (Damasio 2000; Dehaene 2014; Edelman and Tononi 2000), an awareness of self and others shared by humans, many mammals, and some aquatic species such as octopi. In addition, humans and (perhaps) a few primates manifest extended (Damasio 2000) or secondary (Edelman and Tononi 2000) consciousness, associated with symbolic reasoning, abstract thought, verbal language, mathematics, and so forth (Eagleman 2012; Dehaene 2014). Higher consciousness is associated with the autobiographical self (Damasio 2012, 203–07), reinforced through the verbal monologue that plays in our heads as we go about our daily business; that monologue, in turn, is associated with the emergence of a self aware of itself as a self (Nelson, in Fireman, McVay, and Flanagan 2003, 17–36). Recognizing that the cognitive nonconscious (in his terms, the protoself) can create a kind of sensory or nonverbal narrative, Damasio explains how the narratives become more specific when melded with verbal content in higher consciousness. "In brains endowed with abundant memory, language, and reasoning, narratives ... are enriched and allowed to display even more knowledge, thus producing a well-defined protagonist, the autobiographical self" (Damasio 2012, 204). Whenever verbal narratives are evoked or represented, this is the mental faculty that makes sense of them.

Core consciousness is not sharply distinguished from the so-called "new" unconscious (in my view, not an especially felicitous phrase), a broad environmental scanning that operates below conscious attention (Hassin, Uleman, and Bargh 2005). Suppose, for example, you are driving while thinking about a problem. Suddenly the car in front brakes, and your attention snaps back to the road. The easy and continuous communication between consciousness and the "new" unconscious suggests that they can be grouped together as modes of awareness.

In contrast, nonconscious cognition operates at a level of neuronal processing inaccessible to the modes of awareness but nevertheless performing functions essential to consciousness. The last couple of decades in neuroscientific research show that these include integrating somatic markers into coherent body representations (Damasio 2000), synthesizing sensory inputs so they appear consistent across time and space (Eagleman 2012), processing information much faster than can consciousness (Dehaene 2014), recognizing patterns too complex and subtle for consciousness to discern (Kouider and Dehaene 2007), and drawing inferences that influence behavior and help to determine priorities (Lewicki, Hill, and Czyzewska 1992). Perhaps its most important function is to keep consciousness, with its slow uptake and limited processing ability, from being overwhelmed with the floods of interior and exterior information streaming into the brain every millisecond.

The point of emphasizing nonconscious cognition is not to ignore the achievements of conscious thought, often seen as the defining characteristic of humans, but rather to arrive at a more balanced and accurate view of human cognitive ecology that opens it to comparisons with other biological cognizers on the one hand and on the other to the cognitive capabilities of technical systems. Once we overcome the (mis)perception that humans are the only important or relevant cognizers on the planet, a wealth of new questions, issues, and ethical considerations come into view. To address these, this chapter offers a theoretical framework that integrates consciousness, nonconscious cognition, and material processes into a perspective that enables us to think about the relationships that enmesh biological and technical cognition together.

Although technical cognition is often compared with the operations of consciousness (a view I do not share, as discussed below), the processes performed by human nonconscious cognition form a much closer analogue. Like human nonconscious cognition, technical cognition processes information faster than consciousness, discerns patterns and draws inferences and, for state-aware systems, processes inputs from subsystems that give information on the system's condition and functioning. Moreover, technical cognitions are designed specifically to keep human consciousness from being overwhelmed by massive informational streams so large, complex, and multifaceted that they could never be processed by human brains. These parallels are not accidental. Their emergence represents the exteriorization of cognitive abilities, once resident only in biological organisms, into the world, where they are rapidly transforming the ways in which human cultures interact with broader planetary ecologies. Indeed, biological and technical cognitions are now so deeply entwined that it is more accurate to say they interpenetrate one another.

The title of part 1, the cognitive nonconscious, is meant to gesture toward the systematicity of human-technical interactions. In part 2, I will refer to these as cognitive assemblages. Assemblage here should not be understood as merely an amorphous blob. Although open to chance events in some respects, interactions within cognitive assemblages are precisely structured by the sensors, perceptors, actuators, and cognitive processes of the interactors. Because these processes can, on both individual and collective levels, have emergent effects, I will use nonconscious cognition(s) to refer to them when the emphasis is on their abilities for fluid mutations and transformations. The more reified formulation indicated by the definite article (the cognitive nonconscious) is used when the systematicity of the assemblage is important. I adopt this form for my overall project because the larger implications of cognitive assemblages occur at the systemic rather than individual levels. As a whole, my project aims to chart the transformative perspectives that emerge when nonconscious cognitions are taken fully into account as essential to human experience, biological life, and technical systems.

Although my focus is on biological and technical cognitions that function without conscious awareness, it may be helpful to clarify my position relative to the cognitivist paradigm that sees consciousness operating through formal symbol manipulations, a framework equating the operations of human minds with computers. Clearly humans can abstract from specific situations into formal representations; virtually all of mathematics depends on these operations. I doubt, however, that formal symbol manipulations are generally characteristic of conscious thought. Jean-Pierre Dupuy (2009), in his study arguing that cognitive science developed from cybernetics but crucially transformed its assumptions, characterizes the cognitivist paradigm not as the humanization of the machine (as Norbert Weiner at times wanted to position cybernetics) but as the mechanization of mind: "The computation of the cognitivists ... is symbolic computation. The semantic objects with which it deals are therefore all at hand: they are the mental representations that are supposed to correspond to those beliefs, desires, and so forth, by means of which we interpret the acts of ourselves and others. Thinking amounts, then, to performing computations on these representations" (Dupuy 2009, 13).

As Dupuy shows, this construction is open to multiple objections. Although cognitivism has been the dominant paradigm within cognitive science throughout the 1990s and into the twenty-first century, it is increasingly coming under pressure to marshal experimental evidence showing that brains actually do perform such computational processes in everyday thought. So far, the results remain scanty, whereas experimental confirmation continues to grow for what Lawrence Barsalou (2008) calls "grounded cognition," cognition supported by and entwined with mental simulations of modal perceptions, including muscle movements, visual stimuli, and acoustic perceptions. In part this is because of the discovery of mirror neuron circuits in human and primate brains (Ramachandran 2012), which, as Miguel Nicolelis (2012) has shown in his work on Brain-Machine-Interfaces (BMI), play crucial roles in enabling humans, primates, and other animals to extrapolate beyond bodily functions such as limb movements into prosthetic extensions.

One aspect of these controversies is whether neuronal processes can in themselves be understood as fundamentally computational. Dissenting from the computationalist view, Walter J. Freeman and Rafael Núñez argue that "action potentials are not binary digits, and neurons do not perform Boolean algebra" (1999, xvi). Eleanor Rosch, in "Reclaiming Concepts" (Núñez and Freeman 1999, 61–78) carefully contrasts the cognitivist paradigm with the embodied/embedded view, arguing that empirical evidence is strongly in favor of the latter. Amodal symbolic manipulation, as Barsalou (2008) characterizes the cognitivist paradigm, depends solely on logical formulations unsupported by the body's rich repertoire of physical actions in the world. As numerous researchers and theorists have shown (Lakoff and Johnson 2003; Dreyfus 1972, 1992; Clark 2008), embodied and embedded actions are crucial in the formation of verbal schema and intellectual comprehension that express themselves through metaphors and abstractions, extending out from the body to sophisticated thoughts about how the world works.

My comparison between nonconscious cognition in biological life-forms and computational media is not meant to suggest, then, that the processes they enact are identical or even largely similar, because those processes take place in very different material and physical contexts. Rather, they perform similar functions within complex human and technical systems. Although functionalism has sometimes been used to imply that the actual physical processes do not matter, as long as the results are the same (for example, in behaviorism and some versions of cybernetics), the framework advanced here makes context crucial to nonconscious cognition, including the biological and technical milieu within which cognitions take place. Notwithstanding the profound differences in contexts, nonconscious cognitions in biological organisms and technical systems share certain structural and functional similarities, specifically in building up layers of interactions from low-level choices, and consequently very simple cognitions, to higher cognitions and interpretations.

Exploring these structural parallels requires a good deal of ground clearing to dispense with lingering questions such as whether machines can think, what distinguishes cognition from consciousness and thought, and how cognition interacts with and differs from material processes. Following from these fundamental questions are further issues regarding the nature of agencies that computational and biological media possess, especially compared with material processes, and the ethical implications when technical cognitive systems act as autonomous actors in cognitive assemblages. What criteria for ethical responsibility are appropriate, for example, when lethal force is executed by a drone or robot warrior acting autonomously? Should it focus on the technical device, the human(s) who set it in motion, or the manufacturer? What perspectives offer frameworks robust enough to accommodate the exponentially expanding systems of technical cognitions and yet nuanced enough to capture their complex interactions with human cultural and social systems?

Asking such questions is like pulling a thread dangling from the bottom of a sweater; the more one pulls, the more the whole fabric of thinking about the significance of biological and computational media begins to unravel. Parts 1 and 2 pull as hard as they can on that thread and try to reweave it into different patterns that reassess the nature of human and technical agencies, realign human and technical cognitions, and investigate how these patterns present new opportunities and challenges for the humanities.

Thinking and Cognition

The first twist in knitting these new patterns is to distinguish between thinking and cognition. Thinking, as I use the term, refers to high-level mental operations such as reasoning abstractly, creating and using verbal languages, constructing mathematical theorems, composing music, and the like, operations associated with higher consciousness. Although Homo sapiens may not be unique in these abilities, humans possess them in greater degree and with more extensive development than other species. Cognition, by contrast, is a much broader faculty present to some degree in all biological life-forms and many technical systems. This vision overlaps with the position that Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela articulated in their classic work on cognition and autopoiesis (1980). It also aligns with the emerging science of cognitive biology, which views all organisms as engaging in systematic acts of cognition as they interact with their environments. The field, named by Brian C. Goodwin (1977), has subsequently been developed by the Slovakian scientist Ladislav Kovác (2000, hereafter referred to as "FP"; 2007), who has been instrumental in codifying its principles and exploring its implications.

Cognition as formulated in cognitive biology employs some of the same terms as mainstream views but radically alters their import. Traditionally, cognition is associated with human thought; William James, for example, noted that "cognition is a function of consciousness" ([1909] 1975, 13). Moreover, it is often defined as an "act of knowing" that includes "perception and judgment" ("Cognition," in Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com/topic/cognition-thought-process). A very different perspective informs the principles of cognitive biology. Consider, for example, Kovác's observation that even a unicellular organism "must have a certain minimal knowledge of the relevant features of the environment," resulting in a correspondence, "however coarse-grained and abstract," between these features and the molecules of which it is comprised. He concludes, "In general, at all levels of life, not just at the level of nucleic acid molecules, a complexity, which serves a specific function ... corresponds to an embodied knowledge, translated into the constructions of a system. The environment is a rich set of potential niches: each niche is a problem to be solved, to survive in the niche means to solve the problem, and the solution is the embodied knowledge, an algorithm of how to act in order to survive" ("FP," 59). In this view cognition is not limited to humans or organisms with consciousness; it extends to all life-forms, including those lacking central nervous systems, such as plants and microorganisms.

The advantages of this perspective include breaking out of an anthropocentric view of cognition and building bridges across different phyla to construct a comparative view of cognition. As formulated by Pamela Lyon and Jonathan Opie (2007), cognitive biology offers a framework consistent with empirical results: "Mounting evidence suggests that even bacteria grapple with problems long familiar to cognitive scientists, including: integrating information from multiple sensory channels to marshal an effective response to fluctuating conditions; making decisions under conditions of uncertainty; communicating with conspecifics and others (honestly and deceptively); and coordinating collective behavior to increase the chances of survival." Kovác calls the engagement of a life-form with its environment its onticity, its ability to survive and endure in changing circumstances. He observes that "life incessantly, at all levels, by millions of species, is 'testing' all the possibilities of how to advance ahead" ("FP," 58). In a playful extension of this reasoning, he imagines a bacterial philosopher confronting the same issues concerning its onticity as a human, asking whether the world exists, and if so, why there is something rather than nothing. Like the human, the bacterium can find no absolute answers within its purview; it nevertheless pursues "its onticity in the world" and accordingly "is already a subject, facing the world as an object. At all levels, from the simplest to the most complex, the overall construction of the subject, the embodiment of the achieved knowledge, represents its epistemic complexity" ("FP," 59). The sum total of the world's epistemic complexity is continually increasing, according to Kovác, advanced by the testing of what he calls the beliefs of organisms: "only some of the constructions of organisms are embodied knowledge, the others are but embodied beliefs. ... If we take a mutation in a bacterium as a new belief about the environment, we can say that the mutant would sacrifice its life to prove its fidelity to that belief" ("FP," 63). If it continues to survive, that belief becomes converted into embodied knowledge and, as such, is passed along to the next generation.


Excerpted from Unthought by N. Katherine Hayles. Copyright © 2017 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: Transforming How We See the World
Part 1. The Cognitive Nonconscious and the Costs of Consciousness
1 Nonconscious Cognitions: Humans and Others
2 Interplays between Nonconscious Cognition and Consciousness
3 The Cognitive Nonconscious and the New Materialisms
4 The Costs of Consciousness: Tom McCarthy’s Remainder and Peter Watts’s Blindsight
Part 2. Cognitive Assemblages
5 Cognitive Assemblages: Technical Agency and Human Interactions
6 Temporality and Cognitive Assemblages: Finance Capital, Derivatives, and High-Frequency Trading
7 Intuition, Cognitive Assemblages, and Politico-Historico Affects: Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist
8 The Utopian Potential of Cognitive Assemblages
Works Cited

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