Unsociability and the ethics of the unconscious

In my quest to focus more on academic work this year, I’m ploughing through papers in psychology and philosophy. Without a university email address this is unfortunately quite expensive, but them’s the breaks when you’re an independent scholar.

This week I read two papers: The Ethical Relevance of the Unconscious in Philosophy, Ethics and Humanities in Medicine, by Farisco & Evers; and Does It Matter When We Want To Be Alone? Exploring Developmental Timing Effects in the Implications of Unsociability in New Ideas in Psychology, by Coplan, Ooi & Baldwin.ย 

The Ethical Relevance of the Unconscious wasn’t what I was expecting. I have a feeling I just read the title, thought it sounded interesting, and didn’t read the abstract before I downloaded it. This meant I ended up reading a paper that’s not directly relevant to my research areas, but it was interesting all the same.

I was expecting a paper on our unconscious thought processes and how these impact on our decision-making, and how this might affect any ethical questions with which we’re struggling. What I got, however, was a fascinating glimpse into the world of disorders of consciousness.

‘Disorders of consciousness’, or DOCs, is a catch-all term for patients in comas and vegetative or minimally conscious states. Currently when end-of-life decisions are being made, quality of life is naturally one of the most discussed topics. Setting aside the fact that it’s difficult to gauge another person’s quality of life even if they can communicate with you, there are certain things most of us agree on that increase quality of life and usually decrease the desire to end life. Arguably the most obvious of these is cognitive functioning at a high level, for example being able to read, reason, and pursue goals.

It seems self-evident that someone in a state of minimal consciousness or coma wouldn’t be able to do those things, but recent research suggests otherwise. As Farisco & Evers point out in the paper, subliminal information can drive executive functions – meaning that stimulating patients’ unconscious minds may aid in their recovery – and even beyond this, the unconscious is in fact able to perform surprisingly high level cognitive functions, including cognitive control, pursuit of goals, and reasoning.

Suddenly it’s not so obvious how we should be defining ‘quality of life’, is it?

The paper has some interesting recommendations for how medical practitioners should deal with patients with DOCs, and I can imagine it’s probably making some waves in the medical community. So even though it’s not the paper I expected it to be, I’m still definitely glad I read it.

The second paper I read was about solitude, which isn’t something I’ve researched in any depth so far but is definitely an interest of mine, so I can see myself writing about it in the future.

Coplan et al. have been through an extensive review of the literature on solitude, looking at 25 studies of people who prefer to spend their time alone. They put forward a theoretical model of developmental timing effects for unsociability, implying that it matters when and why someone decides they prefer spending time alone.

This might seem like an obvious point, but it’s been largely ignored so far: one of the limitations of Coplan’s paper is that so many other studies didn’t fully distinguish between people who spent time alone because they were socially anxious or excluded for some other reason, and those who did so because they wanted to.

Coplan et al. also make the important distinction between low sociability – the lack of a strong desire to spend time with others – and unsociability – the non-fearful preference for solitude.

They make some interesting points about identity formation, and about how there are certain times in our lives when we’re more expected to be sociable than others. Children of primary school age are often expected to spend time in groups, and those who choose to be alone are seen as ‘weird’ or ‘outsiders’, whereas adolescents’ leisure activities often have quite a strong tendency towards solitude even if they spend some time hanging out with their friends too.

I’d love to take a closer look at how this is mediated by social media: so many young people spend a huge proportion of their time online now that true solitude is perhaps harder to attain than ever. Plus, it’s difficult to work out where to draw the line between being alone and being with others who aren’t physically present: is a person alone when they’re playing an MMORPG? When they’re on social media? When they’re reading a blog? If they’re not alone when they’re reading a blog, are they alone when they’re reading a book? Why?

The paragraph that made me think the most was the one that focused on identity formation:

“[I]t has been argued that over the course of adolescence, solitude emerges as a constructive domain of expertise, particularly for important developmental processes related to individuation and identity formation.”

The idea being that adolescence is the time when we’re forming our identities and working out who we’re probably going to be for the rest of our lives. I wonder, however, how much of that isย because we have more alone time in adolescence, and because we’re encouraged to think about what’s important to us and how we want our lives to go?

Once we’ve left adolescence, many of us end up on the career-mortgage-babies conveyor belt, leaving precious little time for solitude or reflection. Anecdotally, in my own circles I’ve noticed that the people I know who are self-employed (myself included) are much more prone to periods of reflection and to enacting the kinds of sudden changes you’d perhaps more often associate with adolescence than the people I know who work in “normal” jobs. If you’re commuting to work every day, and you’re working 9-5, getting home at 6, making dinner with your other half, tucking babies in bed or just watching Netflix because you’re too exhausted from work to do anything else, it doesn’t give you the space for reflection on your goals and how they might be changing. And without space, it’s difficult to find the courage to make a leap, especially if that leap wouldn’t be taken well by your colleagues.

Of course I might be completely wrong about this, but it’s an interesting area for further exploration, I think. And if you’re interested in solitude as a concept, check out the study: it’ll give you food for thought and some suggestions for further reading.


  1. I have access to articles via my university. If you find something you’d like to read but can’t afford to buy you can email me and I can see if I can find it for download. Let me know if you’re interested, I’ll give you my email address.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, that would be fantastic! There’s a contact form on the site if you’d like to send me your email address. Thanks again ๐Ÿ™‚


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