The Conscious & Unconcious Minds
Brain scientists and psychologists have made great progress in the last 30 years in understanding the brain and its conscious and subconscious parts. In a series of four blogs, I want to outline some of wonders and limitations of our brains. In this blog, I outline some of what we know about the part of the brain that thinks it is in control – the conscious mind – before considering the real boss of the show – the subconscious mind. In two blogs to follow that, I consider some of the cognitive biases and errors we display. Finally in a fourth blog, I suggest ways to minimise some of these defects.
The Conscious MInd
The conscious mind thinks it is in control of our lives. However, it has be attentive to work and it only has a limited budget of attention. It is laboured as it tries to maintain control of the mind as best it can within limited resources. Yes it is the ultimate arbiter for our judgements and choices. But more often than not it simply endorses or rationalises ideas and feelings from our subconscious. You may not know why you like this project because something about its leader reminds you of your beloved sister. If asked for an explanation you will search your memory banks for presentable reasons and your subconscious will certainly find something. Moreover, your conscious mind will believe the story the subconscious makes up.
Our conscious mind needs a lot of energy. The nervous system consumes more glucose than most other parts of the body. Strenuous mental activity consumes as much glucose as a sprint runner. The natural speed of our conscious mind is more like a leisurely walk when we expend some mental energy on random thoughts and in monitoring what goes in the environment, both of which demand little effort. More energy is allocated second by second when required to other tasks. Inhibiting the tendency to read distracting words requires moderate mental effort. It allocates most resources to hard mental tasks. The mental multiplication of two two-digit numbers is the mental work limit for most people.
Our attention is easily disrupted. Conscious activities interfere with one another. It is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once. We can multitask only if the tasks are easy and undemanding. Switching from one task to another requires effort particularly when under time pressure. We avoid mental overload by dividing tasks into a number of easier steps, committing intermediate results to long-term memory or to paper rather than to our easily overloaded working memory. We cover long mental distances by taking our time and conduct our mental lives by the law of least effort.
Cognitive work is not always taxing. In the state of flow (or effortless attending) a person can sometimes expend considerable effort for long periods of time without having to exert will power. It’s a state of effortless concentration so deep that one loses one’s sense of time, of oneself and of one’s problems. It is a joyful state referred to as an ‘optimal experience’. In the flow, maintaining focused attention on the absorbing activity requires no exertion of self-control, thereby freeing resources for the task in hand.
Apart from when in this exceptional state of flow and when it makes an effort to rouse itself out of its natural chilled out state, our conscious mind simply endorses and rationalises the impressions, intuitions, intentions, impulses and feelings that arise in the subconscious. These impressions turn into beliefs and the impulses turn into action.
Although the conscious mind sometimes acts as an apologist for the subconscious mind, it also prevents many foolish thoughts and inappropriate impulses from expression. When alert it sometimes detects violations of the model of the world that our subconscious has created and overrules the violation. Also, when our consciousness is switched on, we improve performance in numerous activities. It is essential in comparisons, choices, following rules and ordered reasoning. But we often make mistakes and these errors are not always due to the intrusions of our subconscious but simply because our conscious mind does not know any better.
The great achievement of our conscious mind is its ability to develop task skills after long, regular and disciplined effort. To acquire a task skill requires a stable environment, the opportunity to practice and clear and speedy feedback. A school building is a stable environment. 10 and more years of compulsory schooling affords the opportunity to practice and learn. These two conditions, along with the clear and speedy feedback of teachers, all combine to develop numerical and literacy skills in children. The subconscious then provides numerical and literacy answers that automatically come to mind for much of the rest of the lives of those with good schooling.
The Subconscious Mind
Our conscious mind thinks it’s the boss. However, it has only limited control of the thoughts, intuitions, and feelings that our subconscious automatically, quickly and continuously generates for us with little or no effort. The subconscious is the stranger in you controlling most of what you do, working away silently, hidden from your conscious self. So we have limited access to the workings of our minds. You know far less about yourself than you feel you do. Civil servants are happy to let their political masters believe they are in control of government, while all the while they craft policy and guide most political decisions. So too our subconscious is happy to let our conscious mind believe it is in control while all the time it is providing most of the promptings and feelings that rule our lives.
Our subconscious is automatically and constantly monitoring our surroundings checking is everything ok, where our attention should be directed and if extra effort is needed from the conscious mind. It provides the impressions that often turn into beliefs. It is the source of the impulses that often become your choices and actions. It offers a tacit interpretation of what happens to you and around you, linking the present with the recent past and with expectations about the near future. It is the source of your rapid and often precise intuitive judgements.
These judgements are generally on the mark. The subconscious maintains a rich and detailed model of our personal world in the brain’s memory stores. It contains the model of the world that instantly evaluates events as normal or surprising and automatically searches for some reason and interpretation of surprises and of events as they take place. The subconscious can detect simple relationships like ‘son is taller than father’.
The subconscious excels at integrating information about one thing through its skill of making associations. Think ‘Bananas’ ‘Vomit’ - just seeing those two words together trigger many other associated words and ideas in a spreading cascade in our brain. This happens quickly and at once yielding a self-reinforcing pattern of cognitive, emotional and physical responses that are both diverse and integrated. The conjunction of the two words were treated by the subconscious as representations of reality. Your body and emotions reacted as if they were the real thing. You think with your body not only with your brain.
The subconscious does not deal with multiple distinct topics at once nor is it adept at using statistics. Our subconscious will detect that a person described as ‘a meek and tidy soul with a need for order and a passion for detail’ resembles a caricature librarian but combining this with statistical knowledge about librarians is a task only the conscious attention of a few people know how to do.
Memory holds the innate skills that we share with animals along with the vast repertory of task skills developed by the conscious mind. The innate skills include the perception of the world around us, the recognition of objects, the orientation of attention, the avoidance of losses and the fear of spiders. These skills are automatically recalled from our memory stores by our subconscious to provide adequate solutions to challenges as they arise. Oftentimes the skill is not sufficiently developed as in a difficult maths problem. Then the automatic responses of the subconscious are inadequate, and the conscious mind must focus on the problem.
But it is rare for the subconscious to be dumbfounded. It’s not constrained by its limits, is scattered in its calculations but it cannot be turned off. When engaged in searching for an answer to one question, it simultaneously generates answers to related questions. It has no qualms about substituting a response that more easily comes to mind for the one that was requested. The new question that is answered is not necessarily simpler or more frugal than the original – it is only more accessible. The answers to the new questions are not random and are often approximately correct. Sometimes they are quite wrong.
The subconscious comes up with intuitive answers quickly and confidently but gives no warning signal when it’s unreliable. There is no simple way for the conscious mind to distinguish between a skilled and a replacement response. Its only recourse is to be alert to the signs of errors and biases, slow down and construct its own answer which it is reluctant to do because of its limited resources. In a blog to follow I outline some of the errors and biases of our brains and ways we might lessen some of these defects.
Some claim we use only 10% of our brain. It might be more accurate to say that we only consciously use 10% of our brain. The other 90% of our brain is being worked but not generally in a conscious and sometimes not to our benefit. However, we are learning some ways that the conscious mind can curtail some of the errors of this 90% part of the brain, which I will write about in the blogs to follow. Also, we are more aware than ever of various tools we can use to tap into the rich reserves of potential that lie beneath our conscious awareness. Poetry, art, theatre, dancing, dream work, hypnosis, meditation, prayer and rituals are some of the tools at our disposal to go beyond our conscious minds and into the depths of our consciousness and being.