Before dashing off to your weekly Adult Children of Parents meeting [ha!], consider this idea: the minute deconstruction of your every motive and impulse, the ceaseless self-interrogation that our therapy-infused culture extolls, may not be the best way to open the black box of your psyche. In fact, it may be leading you away from the truth about yourself.
Wilson argues that the real key to our behavior lies in a part of the brain known as the adaptive unconscious. Evolved perhaps before consciousness itself [definitely before! - Andrew], it is the realm responsible for such indispensable cognitive skills as acquiring language, sizing up situations quickly, detecting signs of danger, sussing out relationships -- skills that everyone uses every day without even realizing it. Think of the adaptive unconscious as the generator in the basement that hums along unnoticed, but without which little could happen.
Mere words, alas, may not grant us any access to its workings. Consider statements like ''I'm doing this because I'm angry at my mother,'' ''I'm doing this because I love money'' or ''I'm doing this because I'm an extrovert.'' To some, they indicate a commendable degree of self-awareness. To Wilson, they are little more than deflective narratives, consoling fictions that justify our behavior without providing true insight into its origins. Trying to use such pat explanations to shed light on our deepest motivations is ''analogous to trying to see how our own kidneys work,'' he says. ''We just don't have that window. We may be misled as to what we feel by putting our feelings into words.'' Wilson conducted a number of experiments in which he asked people how they felt about their mates, then asked them to articulate the reasons they felt that way. He found that the very act of trying to explain those feelings often altered them, for better or worse.
Talking in detail about your feelings is, however, the essential tool of psychotherapy. How to gain self-knowledge if not through the flow of words (like ''mother'' and ''controlling'')? Wilson advocates restoring credence to those gut reactions that psychotherapy has taught us to regard as insufficient or superficial. ''We learn about ourselves by drawing inferences,'' he says. In practical terms, that means closely observing our conduct and gauging our effect on others, rather than dissecting our own thoughts ad infinitum.