Surfacing – Making the Unconscious Conscious

Surfacing – Making the Unconscious Conscious

imageThe elephant in the room in Safety is The Wayward Mind (Claxton ) and by ‘mind’ I don’t mean brain. The notion of ‘mind’ refers to the whole person: body, brain and environment. Humans are only persons-minds in social relation, this is what the noted educationalist Robinson talks about in Out of Our Minds .

Humans are not computers on bodies, such a useless metaphor for defining human personhood. The distortions of such a metaphor and the cognitivist neuropsychology attached to it create the delusion that behaviours are simply the result of wrong programming. Indeed, the fixation on cognitivism is one of the worst ideas that retard any learning movement not just in the risk/safety industry but also the education profession.

There is nothing wrong with being ‘out of mind’ or having a ‘wayward mind’ indeed, it is essential to human effectiveness. From the age of 2 months we begin to develop heuristics to help us live life through gestures, posture, facial recognition, movements and expressions well before we develop language. Indeed, kinematics is the foundation of language and creates the movements for emotions at a young age that later help the development of language by anchoring to acquired gestural knowledge. This is what is known as body-memory; ).

Humans become very efficient by 9 months in the capability of ‘reading’ the emotions of others and developing skills of social exchange through ‘resonance’. This implicit relational knowing doesn’t need any brain activity and is akin to musical knowledge, dance and rhythms that babies attune to at the same age. By the time children are ready to learn language they have all the experiential body memory and implicit relational knowledge they need to make language make sense.

Most of what we learn, even in adulthood is mimetic. We learn by miming, copying, this is also known as ‘apprentice learning’. When we share the same body-memory with others it is called the ‘collective unconscious’ (Jung  ) or ‘habitus’ as named by Bordieu ( We study these in our Culture module (

It is such a privilege to watch my two grand children at different stages of development, one is 6 months and the other 2 years old. It is amazing to observe the sophistication of human learning at close hand. Having studied child development and learning for 40 years I enjoy watching as each child at their stage of development learns by observing, mimicking and through resonance, owning their own gestures. This morning I taught my grandson to stick out his tongue.

We live in a musical house and with my wife as a piano teacher have three pianos in our house, one a Pianola. The ‘affordance’ ( ) of a piano just existing in a room invites children to sit and play just as all objects have affordances that invite human action eg. slides, chairs, swings, instruments and tables. In this way all our grandchildren are at various stages of playing the piano. The 6 month sits and taps enjoying the sounds, the 2 year old is beginning to develop regular rhythms and sequence and the 8 and 10 years olds can play jazz, blues and classical pieces. Of course, their granny creates a habitus that normalizes music and so they all gravitate to the pianos as if ‘that is what you do’. This is what Merleau-Ponty called intercorporeality, we incorporate ourselves in the world tacitly, unconsciously according to our habitus. It is fascinating to watch children make an instrument the extension of their body, just like adults do when they ‘feel’ the environment as an extension of their body eg. feeling the road surface in a car or feeling surface of an object through a stick.

Implicit knowledge is not consciously known to the user but rather the observer (Polanyi, The Tacit Dimenison). Tacit knowledge, which is lived-in-the-world knowledge is unconscious. We learn to act without thinking through the many heuristics we develop over time. This makes living fast and efficient but as we live in such a way, we are not conscious of what we do. We don’t stop and reflect rationally on ourselves in daily action. None of our heuristics and habits require rational brain activity because heuristics/habits are essentially body-memory. Fuchs calls this intercorporeal memory (; ).

This is why language like ‘safety is a choice you make’ is utter nonsense and clear evidence of an industry bogged down in cognitivism. Just imagine the incident investigation methodologies that come out of such discourse as ‘safety is a choice you make’. If safety is a choice you make then every investigation can easily find the person who made the wrong ‘choice’ and fixing safety must be just a matter of right programming. Great fuel for the Safety game of ‘who is to blame’? BTW, all of the programs on the market at the moment in safety advertised as ‘neuroscience’ are simply cognitvism.

In much of our training we introduce the idea of One Brain Three Minds (, ), the idea that humans function consciously and unconsciously in the world.

One Brain Three Minds from Human Dymensions on Vimeo.

The enemy of Safety is not the human unconscious indeed, most of the time it is our unconscious tacit knowledge that keeps us safe. Why is it that this is not studied in Safety?

This leads us to the issue of ‘surfacing’. The activity of conversation about risk is to bring to the surface the tacit knowledge of the user to the user. This is not in seeking blame but rather, in making the unconscious conscious. In this way we can leave the decision about risk up to the user so they can then act on what is known (surfaced). Unfortunately, the normalised safety approach is to tell the user what is wrong and what to do, not so with ‘surfacing’.

Until tacit knowledge is revealed (mirrored) to the user there is no such thing as ‘safety is a choice you make’. The purpose of any conversation about risk is to make the invisible visible, to make the unconscious conscious. This is what is conveyed in Hand Book 327 Communicating and Consulting About Risk (HB 327:2010: communicating and consulting about risk) companion to the Risk Management Standard (AS/NZS ISO 31000:2009). It is all there in plain view but few safety people know it, again it’s not in the safety curriculum.

Unfortunately, the skills required to making the unconscious conscious are not studied in the Safety Curriculum or the SIA Body of Knowledge. What is normalised in the safety curriculum (focused 75% on regulation, legislation and systems) is: policing, telling, blaming, checklisting and attribution as the norm for investigating. There are no skills fostered in the current safety curriculum or SIA Body of Knowledge on surfacing.

You can’t create surfacing just by observations and questioning. Surfacing is a unique skill founded on understanding: heuristics, tacit knowledge (Polanyi), body-memory, intercorporeality, affectivity, personhood, embodied learning, affordance, human unconscious, affectivity and a Social Psychological Body of Knowledge (SPoR). One can’t ask good questions or make good observations in surfacing unless one knows what one is looking and questioning for. We teach all of these skills in several CLLR Programs ( including: SEEK, Holistic Ergonomics and Risk Amplification Modules. (There are no more public SEEK programs on offer for 2019 but other modules are available in July and August 2019 in Perth ( ) and Canberra (,

The key to surfacing is also fostered by wanting to undertake critical and risky conversations. Such conversations require unique SPoR skills and a yearing to step outside safety orthodoxy fostered by compulsory miseducation in the current safety curriculum. You can get more information on Risky Conversations here:

Risk Conversations book –

Free videos –

Free talking book –

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

2 Replies to “Surfacing – Making the Unconscious Conscious”

  1. Dear Rob,

    The reference to music and intercorporeality is quite relevant and reinforces an Aldous Huxley maxim:

    “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music” – Aldous Huxley: Music at night and other essays

  2. Bernard, understanding the musicality of language and the rhythms of semiotics are essential for surfacing. Unfortunately, Safety simply pursues the avenues of guilt, command and telling. Even its telling is constructivist and focused in cognitivism, always projecting rather than extracting.

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