Can you be in an unpleasant mental state and be completely unaware of it at the same time?
My wife mentions that I seem to be angry about being stuck with the dishes again…I deny it. I reflect; I sincerely attempt to discover whether I’ m angry —I don’t just reflexively defend myself but try to be the good self-psychologist my wife would like me to be— and still I don’t see it. I don’t think I ‘m angry. But I’m wrong, of course, as I usually am in such situations: My wife reads my face better than I introspect. (Schwitzgebel, 2008, p. 252)
Another widely discussed example in the philosophical literature is about one being unaware of hearing a noise. For instance, Haybron (2008) gives the following case:
Perhaps you have lived with a refrigerator that often whined due to a bad bearing. If so, you might have found that, with time, you entirely ceased to notice the racket. But occasionally, when the compressor stopped, you did notice the sudden, glorious silence… In short, you’d been having an unpleasant experience without knowing it. (Haybron, 2008, p. 222)
Are these cases of mental states of which we are unaware? But what do we mean by “unaware”? If we want to answer whether we can have unpleasant mental states we are not aware of, we should first say something about what we mean by “awareness”.
This term, however, is controversial. It is a term of art: it means different things when used by different theorists within different theories. For the purpose of this post, I think, we should understand awareness in terms of detecting (or other close synonyms such as identifying, discerning, noticing, spotting, etc.) our occurrent mental states. That is, if one is detecting that one is having a mental state, such as anger or hearing a sound, this means that one is aware of having that mental state. In contrast, if one is not detecting the occurring mental state, then one is unaware of having such mental state.
In this way, the common feature between the previous examples is that the people who undergo these mental states are not detecting that they are undergoing them. In the first case, the subject is incapable of detecting his own anger and, in the second case, the person is not detecting that she is hearing an unpleasant sound. Since they are not detecting the mental state that they are undergoing, they are unaware of having such mental state.
We are sometimes in mental states without detecting that we are in them. For example, during change blindness experiments, people have difficulties detecting some of the things they see. There are different variations of the experiment. In the flicker paradigm, for example, people are presented with a loop of two different images with a blank screen in between the images and they are asked to notice the difference between the images. Even if the difference between the two images is dramatic, it can take a few minutes for people to notice it (here you can see a few demos of this experiment).
This experiment shows how we could be in a mental state without being aware that we are in it. That is, given that the two different images are displayed right in front of your well functioning eyes, you see the two different images; however, given that you cannot detect that you are seeing two different images, even if you try to, this means that you are unaware of seeing two different images. Once you detect that you are seeing two different images, you become aware of it.
Another similar daily example happens when you see a film and a big change in the background goes completely unnoticed: you see the a different image, your eyes and your visual system process the visual new and different image, but you are not aware the you are seeing that different image given that you do not detect that you see it.
However, even if we accept that you could be having a mental state of which you are not aware, could this mental state also be unpleasant?
The answer to this will importantly depend on whether or not we think that you have to be detecting a mental state for it to be unpleasant to you. On the one hand, it may seem strange to say that you are having a very unpleasant migraine, but that you are not noticing it. However, on the other hand, people say things like “I had a nasty headache all day”, but, of course, this doesn’t imply that they were detecting the headache during every moment of the day. That is, they had an unpleasant headache even when they were not noticing it.
I am inclined to think that for a mental state to be unpleasant to you, you have to be aware of being in such mental state. However, in order to argue for this I would need, at least, a whole other post.
But what do you think? Do you think you could be having an unpleasant mental state without noticing that you are having it? What about the two previous cases? Could it be that you are undergoing unpleasant anger even if you are not detecting that you are angry? Could hearing a whining sound be unpleasant thought you are not noticing that you are hearing it?
Bramble, B. (2013), “The Distinctive Feeling Theory of Pleasure“, Philosophical Studies.
Haybron, D. (2008). The pursuit of unhappiness. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schwitzgebel, E. (2008). The unreliability of naive introspection. Philosophical Review, 117, 245–273.