Know Thyself: It May Be An Impossible Maxim

Posted on March 15, 2015


Know ThyselfKnow thyself. It’s a maxim as old as the western intellectual tradition.

Unfortunately, it’s a maxim that may be impossible to honor, especially if you rely only on the examination of your conscious thoughts.

Looking inward to know yourself, research indicates, is probably useless and even misleading.

How can that be possible, you might ask? Surely, the surest things I can know are the contents of my own conscious mind. Can anything be nearer, dearier, or knowier to me?

Well, yes and no.

You do have unique access to the contents of your mind, but not to the processes that produce those contents. Your mind is the product of very many different and often independent processes of your brain, the vast majority of which are unconscious. Your conscious mind is unaware of the unconscious processes and can’t access them.

As a result, when you examine the contents of your conscious mind to figure out why you made one choice rather than another, for example, the processes responsible for that choice are likely to be unknowable to the conscious mind. Rather than admit it has no answer to the question, your mind will normally produce an answer — willy-nilly — based on whatever evidence happens to be available. It won’t even be aware that it has simply made the answer up.

So, to know ourselves better, we should not look inwards to the contents of our minds but instead outwards to our behavior and how others react to it. Because so much of who we are happens unconsciously, we are more likely to develop a better understanding of who we are by examining our behavior in the same way that we examine the behavior of others to understand who they are.

One of the unexpected outcomes of this research into our brains is that other people — even complete strangers — are often as good or better at predicting our behavior than we are. The unique access we have to our own conscious thoughts often impedes our ability to predict and understand our own behavior. Introspection makes us feel more confident about our self-understanding, but it does not necessarily lead to a better or more accurate understanding.

If you are intrigued or horrified by the idea that other people may know you better than you know yourself, take a look at Strangers to Ourselves. It’s a very readable introduction to this research.

I’m also in the process of developing a little online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in this book (and others) from a philosophical perspective. The implications, I think, are huge.

If you want to be the first to receive the course I develop, sign-up to my email list or subscribe to my YouTube channel.

If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.

Posted in: Brains