The unconscious mind
Is there an unconscious mind? My first experience of neuro-anatomy and the mind was during my second year of Osteopathy school. Our professor had the incredible hypnotic skill of being able to induce sleep with only the use of his words and a couple of dusty old text books. I left university well rested but utterly confused by the subject. Several years later I began to study functional neurology and began to fall back in love with the brain. I immersed myself in learning all I could…then in walked hypnosis and the fog of confusion returned.
A model of the mind
Lets begin with an analogy to explain the model of the mind then break it down from there. If your mind was a computer then your conscious mind would be everything on the screen while your unconscious would be everything else – the software, anti virus package, memory etc.
The conscious mind is responsible for focusing in the here and now and evaluating and making judgements using logic and reasoning. It likes everything to make sense. This can be incredibly useful when adding up your shopping bill or consciously lifting the grocery bags into the car after paying for them, however it can also hinder us when we have to try and understand everything and our internal voice stops us from flowing in the moment (my hand break moment above). The conscious also has a form of gait keeper (or firewall in the computer analogy) called the critical faculty, which allows us to reject or accept suggestions according to our beliefs or values. Much of hypnosis is aimed at sneaking suggestion past the critical faculty of the conscious mind which allows us to experience new beliefs and hence new realities.
In comparison to the unconscious the conscious mind is relatively small (roughly 5% of your brains processing power). George A. Miller famously stated that the conscious mind is only capable of processing 7 plus or minus 2 pieces of information at any one time (I think he is actually being quite generous here). Imagine for a moment that you were aware of everything consciously and how exhausting it would be as you became consciously aware of every breath you took, the sensation of your socks on your feet and your bottom on chair as you are reading this. Thank goodness it is so tiny.
Unconscious or everything else
While the conscious is the tip of the iceberg the unconscious is the massive mass that lies beneath the surface. It can work on up to 20 million environmental stimuli per second and controls everything out of conscious awareness all our emotions, values, beliefs, unconscious movements and internal bodily processes as well as storing our experiences, learnings and memories. Wow!
(As an aside various different thinkers such as Freud and Jung broke down the subconscious yet further into the ‘unconscious’ (the area where repressed emotions lurk), ‘collective unconscious’ (the building blocks of the human psyche) and ‘superconscious’).
What resides in the unconscious?
Physiological homeostasis is directed by our subconscious – every breath we take, every heart beat that pumps, every gland secretion and every peristaltic wave of stomach digestion. All this could never be fine tuned consciously. We can take over control of our breathing for a moment or try and hold our breath, but the unconscious is always there to take the wheel again when we forget.
Learnings and memories:
From ‘never forgetting how to ride a bike’ to our first day at school, all our memories and their associated meanings and emotions are stored in our unconscious. Because our unconscious mind is less analytical it can make associations and links with these past memories and emotions and link them to our current experiences. This is incredibly useful as it cuts down on our processing time by generalising information, however it also runs the risk of associating less helpful memories. For instance the smell of a perfume or the lyrics of a song can immediately transport you to a long forgotten pleasant memory, however so can a loud bang or the memory of being told you were stupid as a child. It is fascinating to notice how these emotional memory images also effect bodily processes. How the association of a long forgotten memory can cause the adrenals to pump out adrenaline, the heart to beat faster or the mouth to salivate. This is why fight, flight and freeze also live in the unconscious.
Language and creativity:
From fluently conversing with someone to picking up on their subtle body language or ‘just getting a funny feeling’ about them, this all happens outside of our conscious control. It is spontaneous and intuitive. Creativity is also spontaneous and subconscious which is why when we are in artistic ‘flow,’ time seems to fly by (a hypnotic phenomena) and very little analytical thinking takes place. This creative aspect of our mind also allows us to process things in the back ground while we go about our daily lives. By ‘sleeping on it’ we often awaken with new insight and understanding.
The conscious/unconscious is a model or metaphor and not an anatomical reality, however it does allow us a fabulous way in to work with the mind. Hypnosis allows us to bypass the critical thinking conscious mind and dive under its firewall. It allows us to begin to make changes on a deeper unconscious level and to create new beliefs, learnings and associations. It allows us to update the software and get the screen running smoothly again.
I hope you enjoyed this blog post. Please feel free to share, and if I can help in any way at all, please do get it touch and lets chat.
Best wishes Dan