We are often reminded of our unique ability that makes us different from other species on Earth: the power of logical reasoning. We consciously choose what, when and how to behave/talk. In other words, we are in control of ourselves. Yet, we are not.
Although we like to believe that our behavior is an outcome of our conscious choices, researchers claim that 95% of our reactions are determined by the unconscious forces. Popularized by Freud’s psychoanalysis work, the concept of an unconscious mind intrigued many psychotherapists and scientists, trying to understand its influence on our daily behavior.
The Difference Between The Unconscious and The Conscious Mind
The conscious mind is known as the guardian or the filter of human’s mind. Its main function is to select the best information that matches your needs and personality. It ensures that only empowering data is stored for the purpose of protecting you and developing a good function of the self. Nevertheless, human’s mind is far more complex and vast information slips through the net, allowing the unconscious mind to learn, record, store and retrieve data even when we do not pay attention. So, do we have two minds with similar functions?
Not really. It could be said that the conscious side of our mind has a quite limited capacity and little influence on the unconscious mind since the former one develops in time. As a matter of fact, for the first ten years of our lives, we learn in an unconscious mental state. This may happen due to the fact that children have not yet developed a great reasoning ability as adults, therefore they cannot logically select information.
Additionally, a prominent difference between the two minds is given by the means through which they record data. The conscious mind is entirely attached to the information received through speech, thought, physical movement or writing, while the unconscious mind absorbs information through emotional experiences and spatial-visual perception.
The Root of All Fundamental Knowledge
The unconscious mind is similar to a database with unlimited storage space: it records every information about our habits and surroundings since we are born. With all the stored information, the unconscious mind creates a behavioral pattern that fits our personality, thinking or needs, allowing us to navigate through experiences and remain consistent with our programmed identity. As a matter of fact, there are various activities that we generally consider as our second nature, while the truth is different. Think of driving, which is an activity that employs nearly 30 skills at once without us being consciously aware of them. Some will say that driving is learned through practice, which is true, but having a look at the rule “seven plus or minus two”, we understand that our brain can consciously hold between five to seven bits of information for a short period of time.
The same dexterity and efficiency are applied in other situations when we randomly experience the gut feeling. That sensation is nothing but the unconscious mind retrieving stored data/experience and suggesting us a possible solution.
As noticed above, I mentioned that we have a programmed identity. Although the word “programmed” may sound technical, our identities are indeed determined by the past and present experiences. Habits, beliefs, values and learning processes are all influenced by two major factors:
a) Modeling- the way our parents or close family members used to react or behave have influenced our perception of how we should communicate our emotions/thoughts. Similarly, we unconsciously learn new ways to communicate by observing people who have a certain influence on us. For example, fans who imitate their idol’s fashion style, manners, etc. Moreover, if you will pay close attention to some of your twitches or moves, you will recognize that they are not mere natural reactions, but imitations of someone else’s behavior.
b) Words-If an information you heard/hear is repeated enough times, it will sink into the mind and become part of your behavior or thinking pattern. For example, children are being told from an early age that Santa Claus is real. Being constantly told stories about the character, children accept them as the truth and even begin to associate words with experiences, building up “memories”. In other words, the more an information is repeated, the higher the chance to be perceived as part of the reality.
Conscious versus Unconscious
The best metaphor to describe human’s mind has been given by Freud, comparing it with an iceberg, where the largest part is unseen (unconscious mind) and the small amount of ice is at the surface (conscious mind). Similarly, the most powerful part of our mind is the unconscious one. Besides being a source of knowledge and a tracker of our habits, it also regulates our body’s operating systems such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiration or digestion. Although these systems may automatically function, the unconscious mind is actively ensuring that our body maintains an equilibrium.
Take as an example the panic attacks. When an individual experiences a panic attack, the immediate sensation is the one of fear and threat. Usually, the feeling is intensified by the conscious thoughts/questions such as “What if I faint?” “Oh, no I am losing control of myself!” or “I am breathing heavily, why is that?”. Consequently, this leads to agitations and an increased heart rate since the conscious is aware of a problem and tries to identify the cause and a possible solution.
However, the way to break out of a panic attack is simple when we stop generating thoughts and view the situation just as an uncomfortable experience instead of a threat. Once we stop the flood of worries, the unconscious mind will begin to balance our breathing and heart rate. Therefore, the less we think of what may happen or how we breathe, the easier will be for the unconscious mind to help us.
Certainly, the influence and power of the unconscious mind extend beyond the above-mentioned features, which will be discussed in further articles.