Conscious and Unconscious Thought Processes

Our unconscious processes keep us alive and respond to external stimuli:

For most of human history, only the concepts of conscious thought and intentional behaviour existed. However large body of research over the past several years have concluded that evolution has equipped us with unconscious processes for our very survival and reproduction. It is the unconscious that handles all of our basic physical functions like our breathing, heart rate, immune system, etc. It is these subconscious processes that create our feelings, intuitions and gut reactions and help us prioritize the things that are more important for us to perform. Studies indicate that our culture and early learnings fine-tune many of these adaptive unconscious processes to be in synch with specific local conditions into which we are born. Recent studies also show that contextual priming is the mechanism that generates subconscious processes that influences us to make more precise adjustments to the way we think, behave and react to all the events and people in any given context.

Incidentally, new research shows that babies display glimmers of consciousness and memory when they are just around 5 months old. What this means is, that starting from birth, it is these unconscious processes that keep us alive and kicking, helping us to adjust to the environment we live in. Thus, as babies, our body movements, crying when we are hungry and looking at things around us with excitement are all done without our explicit awareness till we reach the age of 5 years.

In fact, Infants have no control over their movements in the first eight weeks and all their physical activity is involuntary or reflex. They move their bodies while they are awake, but they do not yet know how to make each part of their body move independently. They are not even aware  that all the body parts belong to them. Interestingly, exposure to maternal speech-sounds in the muffled confines of the womb enables the fetus to pick up statistical regularities so that the new-born can distinguish its mother’s voice and even her language from that of others. 

Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman in his best-selling book Thinking Fast and Slow, characterizes automatic thought processes, which he calls as System 1,  as fast, efficient and typically outside the realm of conscious awareness, making them devoid of deliberation or planning. We do not realize that everyday activities like riding a bicycle, playing tennis, driving a car negotiating traffic and signals or even just walking – all involve mastering complex sets of motor skills, but we are hardly aware of them once we have practised enough.

It is the ‘unconscious’ that really does bulk of our so-called thinking work:

Ezequiel Morsella of San Francisco State University came to a startling conclusion that consciousness itself is no more than a passive machine running one simple algorithm — to receive and serve up what is already analysed and decided by the unconscious.

The Passive Frame Theory claims that most of our decisions and the thought processes behind them are performed by many parts of our unconscious brain, well below our level of awareness. When the time comes to physically act on a decision, inputs from various unconscious processes are integrated to arrive at a decision and then handed over to our conscious part of the brain enabling us to execute it. Christof Koch suggests that the single area in the brain called Claustrum is responsible for integrating information across distinct regions of our brain and presenting the integrated view to our conscious brain.

Cognitive scientists Stanislas Dehaene and Bernard Baars developed ‘Global Workspace Theory’ which posits that to consider ourselves as conscious, a mental state which allows us to act, respond, verbalize or take decisions, it is essential for working memory to have been provided with all the requisite contents. 

What is Unconscious and Conscious?

The unconscious is the vast sum of operations of the mind that take place below the level of conscious awareness and these deeper mental processes are not readily available to the conscious mind. Scientists know that even fleeting perceptions which are too swift to register on our conscious awareness, can nevertheless leave lasting imprints on the unconscious mind. Thus a variety of information can get registered in our minds without our explicit awareness or attention.   

Steve Ayan, in his article in Scientific American writes that where we direct our attention, what we remember and the ideas that we possess, what we filter out from the flood of stimuli that bombard us, how we interpret these stimuli and what goals we pursue—all these result from automatic unconscious processes. 

Ben Newell of University of New South Wales and David Shanks of University College of London have a simple definition of consciousness. To call a process as conscious, they claim, we should have reportable knowledge of it. Yet another definition of consciousness is that it is the sensory awareness of the body, the self, and the world.

Thus our conscious mind contains all our thoughts, feelings, cognitions, and memories that we acknowledge. Consciousness is variously referred to by scholars as “sentience”, “subjective experience,” “phenomenal state,” “qualia” etc.

We use the terms ‘feeling’ and ‘emotion’ as synonyms, but they are not interchangeable. Emotions are physical and instinctive and they act instantly prompting bodily reactions to threat, reward and everything in between. While these are thus unconscious, the feelings are the conscious experience of emotional reactions. Steve Ayan gives the example that there are instances when we consciously feel nervous or irritated misinterpreting the internally generated emotion triggered by hunger requiring us to eat to get over the feeling. Children often throw tantrums reacting to internally generated emotions without recognising that it is the feeling of hunger and the moment we feed them they are back to normal.

Extra-ordinary Efficiency of our unconscious:

We know that information is stored associatively in our brain, which is largely bundles of pathways of association. It is estimated that our unconscious can process roughly eleven million pieces of information per second compared to the pitifully low number of forty pieces of information that our conscious brains can process in a second. The limited processing capability is due to our small capacity of working memory.  

David Oakley of UCL and Peter Halligan of Cardiff University suggest that our personal awareness does not create, cause or choose our beliefs, feelings or perceptions. Instead, the contents of consciousness are generated “behind the scenes” by fast, efficient, non-conscious systems in our brains. Put simply, we don’t consciously choose our thoughts or our feelings – we become aware of them when they are brought into our working memory.

Michael Graziano of Princeton University recognizes this limitation of working memory and quotes “The Attention Schema Theory (AST)” which postulates that consciousness arises as a solution to this most fundamental limitation facing our nervous system. There is far too much information that we constantly receive which needs to be fully processed. The brain, over centuries, has evolved increasingly sophisticated mechanisms both for unconscious and conscious processes to work in tandem. Our unconscious processes make the judgement calls on what is important for us and what is not. This results in the unconscious processes selecting only relevant signals, integrating them and  presenting them to our conscious brain while ignoring the rest of the large number of other signals received. 

We know that consciousness can be transiently abolished by pharmacological agents or more permanently, by brain injury. Let us also not forget that consciousness is seemingly lost and recovered every day, from the moment we fall asleep until we wake up while the subconscious is feverishly at work. It is interesting, that in order to explain the concept of ‘self’ more easily, the Hindu Vedic scholars describe deep sleep as a state when our ‘being’ can be looked at as standing apart from us more like an observer. At that stage, we are completely and absolutely unconscious even when our body is still functioning, run by our unconscious processes.

A large body of neuroscientific studies points out that the brain really does a lot of work when it does not appear to be thinking about anything at all, like when we are asleep. Studies reveal that this is the time when our brains work at their hardest to find solutions to any number of complex problems that we face.

The unconscious mind, of course, has long been appreciated as a deep well of creativity from which some of our greatest artworks, scientific discoveries and inventions have been dredged up. But studies show the unconscious is also a powerhouse when it comes to processing extremely large amounts of information or when trying to find solutions to our complex problems. Rose Hoare of CNN goes on to say that the concept “Got a big decision to make? Sleep on it” actually works.

Downside of unconscious processing:

While we can appreciate the unconscious part of the brain taking on so many responsibilities and executing them efficiently without burdening our conscious, there are some downsides. All our biases and beliefs operate at the unconscious level and heavily influence our decisions and actions many of which may be detrimental to our functioning. Similarly, many of our entrenched misconceptions which operate at the unconscious level are very difficult to change and these affect us adversely. Dysfunctional biases, beliefs and misconceptions together form the main cause for many of the problems that we face in social and interpersonal relationships. Our lack of awareness of these debilitating unconscious processes makes us incapable of correcting them on our own, without expert external help.

Afterall, most forms of psychotherapy aim to bring into conscious awareness all our hidden beliefs and fears, often acquired during our childhood so that they can be critically examined. The goal is to make us aware of the deeper reasons for our behaviours and our feelings in order to enable us to change them to be more appropriate.

It should therefore come as no surprise that many a times, triggered by our unconscious processes, we act and behave in ways that are diametrically opposite to our consciously expressed beliefs. As an example, many people claim that they display positive attitude towards minority groups but are astonished when social scientists prove them wrong with a simple test called “The Implicit Association Test”.

But none of this theory takes away our treasured qualities as sentient human beings — our imagination, our language, our sense of self and others — it just points to the unconscious mind as the main player on our brainy fields.

Note: I have used in this blog ‘consciousness’ and ‘awareness’ to mean the same. But experts have slightly different connotations which is beyond the scope of this blog.



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