[reprinted from my former site How to Tune a Human, April 28, 2007]
If you listen to Sigmund Freud or some Psychology 101 textbooks, you may quickly form the idea that there is something called either the ‘Unconscious Mind,’ or maybe called the ‘Subconscious Mind.’
Now right there is a poser, because you might think, “Well, if it’s unconscious, then how can it be a mind?”
And if you read up on this, and if you watch dramatic movies about people who have disturbed the ‘Subconscious’ mind, you could easily get the idea that the Subconscious mind is a kind of lunatic stalker which lives inside of us, and given the right situation, it might burst out and *make* you do something … bad.
Well, it’s not like that. It’s something far simpler and less mysterious, and you’ve seen it all your life, but you didn’t think about it. Here’s what it is …
HOW TO TIE A SHOE
When you’re a child, you learn to tie your shoe. The first day you really have to concentrate. Finally, you get it tied.
The next few days, it still requires a lot of thought and focus, but in a week, you know the moves. It’s a kind of sequence. You’ve ‘learned’ the sequence. And now, in your normal, conscious mind, the idea of “tie shoes” leads to “certain sequence of actions,” which we might now label as “how to tie shoes.”
Except that we don’t think much about it. We just do it. And over time we do it more and more. And now, think a moment. If you’re wearing shoes with laces today, how much did you think about how to tie them this morning?
ACTIONS BECOME UNCONSCOUS
Probably you didn’t think about it at all. You certainly didn’t think of the steps involved. And yet your shoes got tied this morning. Because the habitual action, repeated, has become “built” into your brain and into your mind. (If you’re interested in the biochemistry of the neurons and how they change structure over time to accommodate learned, repeated activities, then read “Evolve Your Brain,” by Joe Dispenza.)
We see this our entire life, and we just think, “it’s become a habit.”
And it’s a darned good thing, because do you realize how slowly your day would go if you had to stop and really concentrate in order to get out of bed (learned as a toddler), how to shave or fix our hair (learned as teens), how to dress (learned as children), how to drive a car or take a bus (learned long ago), how to operate a time-clock or turn on a computer (learned as young adults), how to use a telephone, how to read the clock (“the big hand is …”), how to read the news, how to operate a vending machine or order from a menu, how to write a check, how to wash clothes, how to make a pot of coffee, how to …
You see, it would be impossible to have the life you have if these things required attention, or consciousness. But they don’t. By repetition, they’ve become “automated circuits” or stored body memory, and can be engaged just by calling them. Your conscious mind decides, “tie shoes,” and another part of your mind handles it for you.
THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND
In fact, you were just looking at the “Unconscious Mind,” or the “Subconscious Mind,” and we don’t even realize it because we’ve seen it in action our whole lives long.
Now, bear in mind that a lot more than tying your shoes becomes automatic, repeated, habitual response as we store it away. For example, your habitual feelings and moods (happy-go-lucky, depressed, anxious, angry, dull, chipper, amused, terrified, worried, elated). And for example, your opinions, prejudices, and beliefs (Chinese people cannot drive, your mother is stupid, cops are pigs, your new sweetheart is just dreamy, your old sweetheart was just awful).
Just the conscious thought, or even half-conscious thought as when day-dreaming, will automatically trigger your stored “programs/routines/habits,” and they will play out. Some are useful (driving to work), and some are not (worrying what people will think).
And, sure enough, all that stuff is not conscious. It is not part of your conscious mind, now that it’s been stored as a habit. And for most of us, there doesn’t seem to be some other conscious entity in your head other than yourself. And it operates like a “mind” in that it offers up thoughts, automatically, all day long. Automatic thoughts. Sometimes useful. Sometimes not.
That, and nothing else, is the “Unconscious Mind,” or the “Subconscious Mind.”
THE ‘NON-CONSCIOUS’ MIND IS LOOKING OUT FOR YOU
I like to call it the “Non-conscious” mind because it operates much like a mind, but it’s somewhat more automatic. It follows certain habitual rules rather than thinking things out step by step like you do when you’re consciously puzzling out something new. This non-conscious mind is also directly related to thousands of habitual things that the body has to do, most of which has *never* been in your conscious mind at all, such as regulating your blood pressure, sending chemical messengers here and there, remembering to breath harder when working out, keeping the heart beating while you sleep, and thousands of other bodily processes, none of which are (normally) conscious. It *is* an unconscious mind for it has no self-aware consciousness like *you* do, and it operates in a way that generally you are unconscious of that mind, which I’ll call the non-conscious mind.
It’s not hiding. It’s not stalking. It’s not dangerous, but rather it has been preserving your life as best it can for your entire life long. However, it *does* operate automatically, and sometimes that doesn’t fit.
Automatically driving in the right-side lane will fail to work well when you visit England.
Automatically winking at the pretty girl will fail to work well when she’s your new boss.
Automatically picking your nose when it bothers you will fail to work well when you’re having tea with the Bishop of Boston.
DRIVING IN TWO DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS
Now, let’s get to something *useful* with this information.
Have you ever gone on a diet? Most likely you have. And quite often on diets, it’s not such an easy thing to do. And the reason is quite simple.
You’re thinking two different thoughts. One is “I want to go on a diet.” And the other thought is “I want to eat that big piece of pie.”
You’re thinking both thoughts!
If a car had two drivers, and they were fighting over the steering wheel, and first one was stronger and then the other, can you imagine how the car would be careening all over the road, on and off the sidewalks, into porches and houses and attracting the police while pedestrians leap into the bushes to escape?
What wonder then that most diets fail to follow a straight path to success?
Now, when you consciously decided to go on a diet, where do you suppose that other thought came from?
It came from your automatically-operating non-conscious mind, offering up to you the habitual responses you have entrained all these years. It doesn’t stop working just because you had a different thought today. It’s been remembering that you like a second helping of potatoes and gravy for your whole damn life, and a few minutes of new thoughts don’t neutralize that automatic program. Your non-conscious mind is looking after you, regulating your blood and digestion and helping you drive the car and take another serving of pie by golly.
HOW CAN A HUMAN CHANGE?
Thus comes what we call “will power.” If you can persist long enough with a new course of action then the new course of action becomes ingrained, made automatic and unconscious, and then the new course will be offered up to you next time.
That’s why when you are actively exercising every day, it’s fairly easy to continue exercising the next day. But when you’re in the habit of *not* exercising every day, then tomorrow it’s not so easy to exercise.
The non-conscious mind is looking out for you, the best way it knows how.
And, there are some other ways to make progress. For example, if you could just “talk” with your non-conscious mind, perhaps the two of you could get along. (“Can’t we all just get along?”)
And the fact it, although the non-conscious mind can’t talk, if you know how, you can easily carry on a conversation with your non-conscious mind. And if you can just know what things it’s going to automatically *help* you with, and where it’s going to automatically *block* your new plan, this helps tremendously for your formulation of workable plans.
And over time, the two of you will, in fact, get along better and better.
More to follow.