Last night while I was speaking in front of my class, one of my students did something that caught my eye. Tonight I can’t tell you what it was that my student did. It wasn’t anything significant or distracting. I just noticed it. It’s what followed that stuck with me. Without even directly looking at the student, I incorporated her action into my next statement. I didn’t think about it. There was no pause. I just kept speaking.
My student interrupted me. “You saw that?”
I smiled at her and said yes, because that’s what we, as social workers, do. We observe every little detail and use that data to inform our practice and actions. I said that I was a licensed stalker, in a good way.
The reality of this practice of observation is that it isn’t a conscious process. At first it may have been – teaching myself to pay attention. Teaching myself to question meaning and assess context. Over time, over years and perhaps decades, it has become a subconscious process. I don’t think about it. I don’t take notes. I just … do. I don’t write this to say how awesome I am. Rather, I feel more like I have little control over this process. It just is.
In “The Social Animal,” David Brooks plows through an immense collection of research about the brain, social development, and human interaction to present a thought provoking picture of how human beings really learn and function. Brooks argues that the majority of what we do, say, and feel is guided not by our conscious, discerning mind, but rather our subconscious. The volume of information presented by Brooks is far too great to sufficiently address in a brief post. Instead, I will focus on the interaction of the conscious and the unconscious mind in learning.
In the class I taught today, we were discussing skills associated with spiritually sensitive social work practice. We talked about how in the beginning these skills can seem awkward and cumbersome. As we interview a client, we know we’re supposed to be listening, but at the same time we are formulating what the right thing to say next might be, and while we are formulating that information in our mind, we don’t hear what the client is saying. Over time, that conscious formulation becomes more and more relaxed and it just seems to flow. Brooks talks about how when we are learning a new skill, there is a great amount of brain activity happening. By contrast, there is a mere subtle blip of brain activity when an expert practices the same skill. The initial learning is more present in the conscious mind, while at the same time the subconscious is drawing upon past experiences, training, and information, and creating new neural pathways. Once these pathways are formed, often through repetition and practice, the activity requires little effort. It becomes a function of the subconscious mind.
Brooks presents the dance between the conscious and the subconscious mind through a consideration of epistemological modesty, which is the “knowledge of how little we know and can know.”  It is the recognition of how little we understand, which Brooks would argue is because of the subconscious. Epistemological modesty is an attitude toward life. It is based on the knowledge or awareness that we really don’t know ourselves. It supposes that wisdom begins with an understanding of how little we know, and then using that understanding to learn and grow. It requires persistence, patience, and the ability to endure ambiguity.
In “The Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot wrote:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
This resonates with the concepts of epistemological modesty and the Greek, “metis”.  Through our wandering and exploration, we arrive at a place of wisdom or balance that emerges from the dialogue between the conscious and the subconscious mind. Through practice, experience, time and billions of neurological processes, we arrive at a place of understanding both the conscious details and the subtle, subconscious innuendo of a situation, relationship, or life itself.
I loved this book. I brought up different aspects of the book in multiple conversations throughout my day. But it also does not address some greater questions, specifically, that of the spirit or the soul. Brooks doesn’t intend to address these. He focuses on the research about thought. But I might hypothesize that some of these subconscious functions that he writes of, morality, love, character, might have an even deeper place in our human experience. God says that He will write His laws in our inward being, in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). In my experience working with people, I have become more and more convinced that most people know in their heart of hearts, what is good and true and right. I believe that this is greater than just our subconscious, but that it is the very fingerprint of God on our souls. And I believe that calls for greater exploration.
 David Brooks, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” New York: Random House, 2012.
 Ibid, p. 240.
 Ibid, p 245.
 Ibid, p. 249.