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Let us first examine what we mean by subconscious mind.
Subconscious mind is nothing but the neural pathways that have been established in our brains as a result of our past beliefs and conditioning.
Research has established that while brain size has increased by about 350% over human evolution, blood flow to the brain increased by an amazing 600%. The increase in the supply of blood to the brain appears to be closely linked to the evolution of human intelligence where the human brain has evolved to become not only larger, but more energetically costly and blood thirsty than previously believed.
The brain therefore has developed two important mechanisms to conserve energy by way of ‘Latent Inhibition’ and ‘Cognitive Biases’.
Latent Inhibition is the unconscious capacity of the brain to ignore stimuli that experience has shown to be irrelevant to our needs. This is critical, as scientists estimate that we are exposed to several million pieces of information at any one time, but our brains can deal with only about forty. On the flip side, Latent Inhibition makes us miss out many important things that happen around us.
The other type of optimization occurs by way of cognitive biases which are a result of our brain’s attempt to drastically simplify information processing by using rules of thumb, heuristics or mental shortcuts. The downside here is that these cognitive biases, which operate without our explicit awareness, often tend to make us take very irrational decisions.
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In fact, Dan Ariely, well known behavioral economist, in his ground-breaking book ‘Predictably Irrational’, explores this phenomenon and demonstrates that people make the same mistakes time and again in predictable ways.
It is clear from research that even though we are aware of our consciousness, it is the unconscious mind operating quietly in the background that is really running our lives.
All of us who are more than five years old operate from unconscious levels of our mind approximately 95% of the time and not surprisingly children under six years rarely use conscious processes at all. The subconscious mind of children continually acquires behavioral programs by observing people who influence them like mother, father, family or community. These programs, which are subconsciously registered and strengthened by repeated observations, run the show for the rest of their lives unless they are consciously changed with a lot of effort.
It should therefore come as no surprise that many of our childhood experiences really drive our behavior without our explicit awareness.
The early sensory-motor and emotional memories of infants and toddlers are created and nurtured by the Amygdala, Thalamus, Cerebellum and Orbital Medial Prefrontal structures of the brain. This system organizes and retains the primitive vestibular-sensory-emotional memories of early caretaking. What makes this very significant is that these memories become the foundation of our belief systems when we grow up.
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In his book “The Neuroscience of Human Relationships”, Louis Cozolino says “ Because the first few years of life are a period of exuberant brain development, early experience has a disproportionate impact on the development of neural systems. In this way, early negative interpersonal experiences become a primary source of the symptoms for which people seek relief in psychotherapy.”.
Although most of our important social and emotional lessons occur during our early years, we have little or no conscious memory of learning them.
This phenomenon, referred to as Infantile Amnesia, is due to the immaturity or lack of full development of hippocampal-cortical networks, whose functioning is required and critical for the conscious recollection of the learning process. Despite our lack of explicit memory for these experiences, we are nevertheless driven by these early lessons of life.
It must be highlighted that the subconscious mind does handle many onerous responsibilities. It keeps our body temperature at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It keeps our heart beating at a certain rate and it also keeps us breathing regularly. It effectively uses our autonomic nervous system, to maintain the right balance among the hundreds of chemicals that reside in our billions of cells so that our entire physical machine functions in complete harmony. It is also the source and storehouse of our emotions.
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Subconscious is a storehouse of all your learnings. Once you learn how to do a certain task, then it becomes a habit stored away in your subconscious memory and you don’t need to learn it again. If there was no subconscious mind, then on a daily basis you would have to relearn every function.
Thus we learn how to walk with our conscious mind, but once the behavior is fully learned, we no longer need to think about it. The subconscious now controls the act of walking unless we decide to consciously control our steps. Again, when we stop thinking about it, the subconscious mind resumes control.
Subconscious mind is many times more powerful and responds faster than the conscious mind. The conscious mind processes information at an approximate rate of 40 bits of information per second, while the subconscious mind processes approximately 40 million bits of information per second. It is worth noting that when we drive a car we use around thirty different skills without being aware of it.
Cozolino says “ Research has found that, although it takes our brain 400-500 milliseconds to bring sensations to conscious awareness, it takes only 14 milliseconds to implicitly react to, and categorize, visual information.”
We need to note that the subconscious mind does not think or make any moral judgments. It only knows what it has been taught and holds them as true beliefs. Accordingly, it directs our thoughts and actions in tune with the entrenched programming.
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In his book “Strangers to Ourselves”, Timothy Wilson presents a superb view of the reasons why the unconscious mind is inaccessible to self-analysis: “The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try. This is mainly because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of our consciousness.”
Wilson suggests that we are better off by combining introspection with observing how others react to us, and deducting the otherwise inaccessible nature of our minds from their responses. If others see us differently than we see ourselves, we need to incorporate this alternative view of ourselves into our personal narrative.
This is the reason why I have been emphasizing for many years now, that we need honest feedback from people who love us enough to tell us the truth which, if we take in the right spirit, will help us change our behavior to build better relationships.
We now know that all our habits of thinking and acting are stored in our subconscious mind. But more significantly, our subconscious mind clearly demarcates our comfort zones and works really hard to keep us as much as possible in these comfort zones.
“WHATEVER WE PLANT IN OUR SUBCONCIOUS MIND AND NOURISH EVERYDAY WITH REPITITION AND EMOTION WILL ONE DAY BECOME A REALITY.”
– EARL NIGHTINGALE
Whenever we try to change any of our established patterns of behavior, our subconscious mind makes us feel emotionally and physically uncomfortable. At that time, we can feel our subconscious pulling us back towards our comfort zone. Even thinking about doing something different from what we are accustomed to, will automatically trigger a tense feeling and unease.
McKinsey studies done in the years 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010 have repeatedly confirmed that 70% of corporate change initiatives have failed to meet their stated objectives. Many Behavioral Scientists believe that resistance of people to move away from their comfort zones may be a big contributing factor for these failures.
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Research has established that less than one percent of all the information that the mind takes in, actually reaches our awareness. Likewise, most of how we react to that information remains outside our awareness. Let us examine what we miss out in the process.
A psychologist made a one-minute videotape of three students passing a basket ball back and forth. At one point in the video a woman wearing a white victorian gown and carrying a white parasol strolled through the game and her passage took about four seconds.
Before playing the video, the psychologist asked the participants to watch the video and report how many times the ball was tossed back and forth. At the end of the video, participants came out with numbers like 23, 24 or 25 as the number of ball tosses. Then the psychologist asked them if they saw anything unusual. The participants were perplexed with the question, as they did not notice any thing unusual. However when the video was replayed, most people were flabbergasted to see, for the first time, the woman walking through the game.
Thus, while the selectivity of our attention or focus usually helps us, it also means that we do not notice many things – and more importantly, we do not realize that we have not noticed.
To summarize, we cannot wake up or fall asleep, remember or forget our dreams, summon or banish our thoughts, by deciding to do so. Similarly, when we greet someone on the street we just act, and there is no actor standing behind prompting us to greet. Thus our acts are essentially end points in long sequences of unconscious responses. They arise from a complex structure of habits and learned skills. We need to understand and appreciate that most of our life is enacted without our conscious awareness.