Photo Courtesy of Benjamin Young A brain scan, pictured here, shows the non-conscious mind. The research Benjamin Young and Ran Hassin will be conducting will allow them to access and measure the human unconscious and its effects on self-control.

Photo Courtesy of Benjamin Young
A brain scan, pictured here, shows the non-conscious mind. The research Benjamin Young and Ran Hassin will be conducting will allow them to access and measure the human unconscious and its effects on self-control.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Benjamin Young as a professor of psychology. Benjamin Young is actually a professor in the philosophy department and in the neuroscience graduate program. 

University of Nevada, Reno, professor of philosophy Benjamin Young and his research partner, Ran Hassin, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are breaking new ground in the world of psychology. For the first time in experimental psychology their proposed research will allow verbal conversations with the human unconscious.

Young and Hassin were recently awarded a three-year research grant to study non-conscious human behavior from the John Templeton Foundation.

Young first became interested in non-conscious human behavior after hearing a lecture by Hassin explaining how humans can complete things unconsciously. He used the example of humans nonconsciously doing mathematics.

Young, who focused a lot of his research on olfaction, or the human sense of smell, had just written two papers that stated there is reason to think humans have non-conscious qualitative states.

“Things turn out to have a smell quality regardless of whether we are aware of it or not,” Young said. “These [smells] modulate our behavior in all sorts of ways”.

After hearing Hassin’s lecture and connecting the research with his own, Young proposed a question to Hassin: Is it possible that humans could have non-conscious feelings? And if so, are they a better predictor of what an individual wants?

This question intrigued both Young and Hassin, and the pair began researching and theorizing about how to develop a method to measure non-conscious reports. For two years the pair applied for various grants until, earlier in September the John Templeton Foundation accepted their proposal.

The John Templeton Foundation, established in 1987, supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love and free will. According to the foundation’s website, Young and Hassin are among only 19 living Templeton Prize Laureates.

The pair’s current research is titled “Conversations with the Human Unconscious: A Potential Breakthrough in Our Understanding of Self-control and the Non-conscious Mind” and will begin this December at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Young and Hassin will start by developing a new method to ask a person a question non-consciously and get them to give an answer without knowing it, said Young.

Young’s previous research on secondary feelings and non-conscious smells relied on evidence from indirect measurements like respiration and sniff rates.

After the method of collecting non-conscious reports is established, Young and Hassin will compare conscious and non-conscious reports to analyze self-control conflicts. The two have a working hypothesis that suggests the non-conscious reports will be a better predictor of how we behave.

If the pair finds its hypothesis to be correct, Young said it will bring up many questions of responsibility, self-control and ethical obligations in relation to our non-conscious selves, and if it is possible to influence the sub-conscious system.

To test this, the pair eventually wants to look at a group of incoming college freshmen.

“We want to look at how well [college freshman] want to do. Basically, we will be measuring how well they say that want to do at the beginning of the semester and how committed they are to scholastic performance and then how they are actually behaving,” Young said.

By asking the students a series of questions both consciously and non-consciously throughout the semester, Young hopes they will be able to determine which report is a better predictor and how they might be able to influence students to be more successful.

Young will supervise and consult the experiments, data analysis and presentation of the findings while a five-person team at HUJI will conduct research as he continues his current project on the philosophy of olfaction here at UNR. In the summers he will work as a visiting faculty member at HUJI to maintain an active role, Young said.

Over the next three years, Young will also be working on another research project with Denis Matthews, an assistant professor of biology at UNR, on the bio-philosophy of smell.

Matthews and Young are currently exploring how the smell of a group of monomolecular compounds, or just one type of molecule, changes when you increase the concentration, Young said. Young hopes to explore how molecules, interact as a gaseous plume in Matthews lab, after compiling the research that has already been completed.

“This would bridge the divide between biology and philosophy here to some extent,” Young said.

Young and Matthews are also the only philosophy and biology team working on olfaction in the world, Young said.

Emily Fisher can be reached at efisher@sagebrush.unr.edu and on Twitter @TheSagebrush.