Fits or Feats: What is the Unconscious anyway?

People often surprise me, and thank goodness they do. Learning never stops, so the surprises are always coming. Yet there are some things that truly baffle me. There was considerable debate in this country when Milton H. Erickson was positing the unconscious mind as a component of the hypnotic experience. Yet before him, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and their students all agreed that both a conscious and unconcious mind existed. Behaviorists didn’t like this, as you cannot measure an unconscious mind, calculate its depth or weight. It’s just so damned abstract that many othewise intelligent people just decided that it didn’t exist.

What surprises me is that there are still such people today. We all daydream, fantasize, surprise ourselves with unexpected feats (and sometimes fits) of memory. It seems improbable, and I’m being generous, that our consciousness is managing all of that and somehow still is able to sneak up on us, startling us with little glimpses of awareness, like a mischievous child sneaking up on his sister. Someone who doesn’t grasp that he has unconscious processes somehow staying in synch and functioning for him (and sometimes even against him) might have no difficulty believing in romance, in God, or in some other concept requiring faith, as no measurement will succeed. Let’s face it – you can’t easily measure a lot of things that many of us nonetheless recognize as real and important in our lives.

I don’t know the specifics of your background, whether you studied any Psychology or self-help methodology previously. There are several fields of endeavor that have recognized and made use of the Unconscious mind for years. (That’s right, I am so certain of the “unconscious” mind’s existence and validity that I am using title case for the word!) Various forms of psychological therapies are among them. However Sales, Marketing, Politics, and Religion are other examples that have a long tradition of communicating with their audiences at the unconscious level to meet their goals. I will delve further into how these fields use the Unconscious in a later post, though today we will establish a shared set of definitions and functions.

Since I don’t know your background, I can’t assume that you agree with my premise so far. So I will presume that you either have a limited awareness of your own unconscious mind, or perhaps I just haven’t clearly defined the term. Let me explain.

At any moment, for instance right now, wherever you are, there are a number of things going on around you of which you are conscious. That is, you see it, hear it, are keeping track of it via your senses to some degree, and you are aware of it. It may be the tactile sense of the chair’s arm rest beneath your forearm. It could include the annoying construction sounds outside. Or just the page you are reading at this moment. If someone were to stop and ask you what you were doing, or what you were experiencing at that moment, I’m speaking of the things that you would reply with. “I’m reading a book/blog”, “Just sitting in this comfortable chair”, “Trying to get something down in spite of all that racket out there!”. Whatever it is that you focus on at this moment, your conscious mind is focusing on it, and we could say that these things are conscious phenomena for you.

However, George Miller famously pointed out that we can only keep track of seven plus or minus two items in conscious awareness at a time. It’s for that reason that most of us, with just a small amount of rehearsal, can learn a phone number. (Since this is a weblog, I will not follow APA format for references. But if you would like to know where to learn more about any of the points and the contributors cited (however informally), please email me. However, memorizing a twelve or fifteen digit number is a far greater challenge to most of us. Why this tangent? Because as you are keeping track of these elements in your consciousness, there is a finite number you can add to your focus.

We will talk later about how that limited focus can actually serve us, provided we teach ourselves to limit our conscious energy to things that serve us, that enable us, facilitating our successes, rather than mixing in negative thoughts, disabling inner voices, and beliefs that limit or even sabotage our successes.

For now, just consider that if we are limited by seven-plus-or-minus two elements in conscious awareness, how can we do all the complex things we do every day? How can we run our autonomic biological processes while eating and drinking, working, delivering that awesome sales pitch, and so forth?

Simple – if you are doing it now, but were not consciously aware of it, it can be called an unconscious process. It is being on some level managed by your Unconscious mind.

We have learned that using biofeedback,  any human can be trained to alter their own pulse. More impressively, we can learn to change that pulse so that it varies between two different fingers. If you listen carefully right now, you can hear medicine men and healers all over the world muttering a unanimous, synchronized, “DUH!” in response. This is actually nothing new in many parts of the world, and some shamen learn to manage what for us is an entirely unconscious behavior with great, deliberate, conscious precision. So this type of person is neither surprised nor impressed by the first part of this paragraph. I therefore say it only because in our Western tradition, we have largely suppressed belief in such capabilities. It continually surprises me how many people don’t know this, so I feel compelled to mention it as you cannot leverage a force you don’t know about.

So at this moment, consider drawing up two lists, one with the heading of “Conscious” and the other with a heading of “Unconscious”. Now picture yourself jotting down under the first heading all the items you are consciously aware of right now. It may be the amount of light in the room, the sounds, the smell of your furniture, a dog barking in the distance. It’s your reality, your environment, so it’s your unique list – I’m just making guesses. Now consider the second list and all the things going on right now around you that you are not conscious of at all. It could be your pulse, the slight rub of your shirt’s fabric against your skin, the energy being emitted by the plant in the corner, and so forth. If it’s happening, and you were not consciously keeping track of it, it is being tracked by your Unconscious.

Suspicious? All objects, even non-living things, are comprised of atoms, which at their core are energy. There is nothing in the room with you now that does not emit some degree of energy, and as you are in that same boat, your own system, on some level, knows about the energy storm going on around you. But you weren’t thinking about it, therefore it is unconscious. Oh, you were fine with the plant’s energy, but you didn’t think any part of you knew about that scratchy fabric against your skin until I said it? Do you think your nerves just went to sleep until I mentioned the shirt? Did they just wake up when you heard my suggestion? Of course not – your body is full of nerve endings that are continually delivering data to your brain, constantly providing feedback on sensations and feelings. Your brain in turn must decide what to do with this glut of data. Since it knows from experience that George Miller was right, it understands that it can’t keep conscious track of everything going on. It is constantly making decisions about which data must be tracked consciously, versus which can be given up to the unconscious mind to deal with. This is a vitally important process and we will dig much deeper into it in a future post. For now, consider that the feeling of the scratchy shirt is just not important enough unless it really becomes distracting. The precious few things the conscious mind can handle will not include that data unless, as mentioned, it becomes a really big deal.

A similar situation occurs when you walk into the kitchen and brush up against a hot burner. You may not have consciously registered that it was glowing orange until you touched it and it burned you. Suddenly, like an annoying itch, it becomes a really big deal, and jockeys for a position in conscious awareness. Your mind decides that it should be one of those seven-plus-or-minus-two things, and you consciously make a decision about what to do next.

Still, we experience minor annoyances all the time that never become conscious to us because they don’t appear to pose any serious threat and, in our judgment at the time, do not warrant immediate action. Similarly, we have positive experiences all the time that our minds determine require no immediate action or conscious awareness.

The purpose in delineating these two categories, Conscious and Unconscious, is that we all have them, and we all use them every day. We often create problems for ourselves, or have them created by others for us, and rather than overload our conscious minds with them, they are given over to the unconscious part of our minds. This can be either good or bad, depending upon the impact these ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and so forth, have on us.

Consider this – someone has an unconscious belief that he can do anything he sets his mind to, provided he really believes in himself, and is willing to work toward it. Now consider someone who has a very different unconscious belief – that he is incapable of doing anything right, that no matter how hard he works or plans, he is doomed to fail. Perhaps he believes he just has bad luck.

When these two people are given a challenge with potentially great reward, which person do you think is more likely to achieve it? The former person has a strong belief in himself and his success, and a built-in motivator to work hard to achieve. The second person thinks that his own hard work is largely irrelevant, and that no matter what he does, he has a great chance of failure. There are many traditions that teach belief in one’s self and one’s chances is enough to make it happen! In such a tradition, the hard work is almost secondary to belief, faith, and so on. That first person has the odds stacked strongly in his favor before he even takes action. But once he starts to act, he has a further belief that as he works hard, he will make himself successful. In that belief are stacked some of the most common attributes of successful people – belief in one’s skill, the positive outcome of hard work, and the belief that we, ourselves, control the lion’s share of our outcome. Conversely, less successful people often report a belief that the locus of their success or failure is outside of themselves. It is either a “good break” or “luck” or “knowing the right people” that makes all the difference. Not to claim that these factors never matter, but successful people believe that the far greater reason they have succeeded or failed is due to their own actions.

What happens now when you take beliefs that like out of conscious awareness, where we can easily analyze, challenge, and modify them? What happens, do you think, when you put such an ides into your unconscious mind? The realm of the Conscious mind is to create, assess, evaluate, and select among all the available data – which is in fact a great deal of information and even more noise. The realm of the Unconscious mind, however, is to manage, maintain, and automate processes. It is excellent at these types of things, but doesn’t typically analyze data all that well. There have been many people, such as the aforementioned shamen and yogi, who have trained their unconscious minds to do amazing things. However we are assuming here that you are not a yogi, and therefore we address the capabilities and strengths of your various internal systems as they typically develop, with no intervention so far.

Therefore if you have a dysfunctional belief that you consciously hold, it only makes sense that as you repeat it out loud, you can easily spot the irony or the foolishness of its premise. If your belief is that people who appear different from you are out to attack you and take your life and your possessions, you may consciously evaluate this and realize that sure, in certain settings, this might be at times a useful if too general idea. But as you walk down the street, and encounter dozens of people different from you, it’s not hard to see how debilitating this could become. You could get to the point that you are afraid to board an airplane because someone ahead of you in line is wearing a turban or other such ethnic or religious signifier. You might be afraid to cross the street because a person with radically different attire stands on the other side of the street waving a sign that says “the End is near! Pray for Salvation today!”. The conscious mind has no difficulty recognizing that the fellow with the turban is going through Security just as you are. If he plans to carry a bomb onto the plane, it’s unlikely he will succeed. Similarly, the fellow warning of imminent apocalypse isn’t necessarily trying to take something from you, or harm you. Frankly, if he is practicing truth in advertising, he truly believes that he is potentially going to save your soul from a fate he truly believes is coming. In neither case is the person all that likely to do you harm. The conscious mind is continually analyzing the available data and will, if asked, note the overgeneralizations, where xenophobia or the impact of a paranoid media may tend to inspire more fear than is useful.

On that other hand, once the unconscious mind has its instructions, it tends to just go with them and manage them. It’s for that reason that we can maintain frankly silly ideas for years and really believe in their truth or efficacy. However both minds exert continual influence over our state of mind and our decisions. Consider that for a moment. If I hold an irrational belief in my unconscious, one that holds me back, damages my relationships, limits what I will strive to achieve, and so on, that belief may go for years unchallenged. Where our conscious mind would make quick work of a really debilitating belief, our unconscious just doesn’t do such things on its own. It trusts the messages it is given. Which can be dangerous (or useful, depending upon who is influencing it) because giving instruction to the unconscious mind is not difficult. In fact, we do it all the time without realizing it, both to ourselves and others. Advertising is based upon driving us on multiple levels – some are conscious and overt, while others are notoriously unconscious and covert. And the unconscious mind is very, very good at receiving and acting upon those messages.

That’s a huge part of the work I do, working with the unconscious mind, so the first step was establishing an agreement together, that we are all of two minds – one conscious, the other, not so much…