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The subconscious mind: Your unsung hero

September 19, 2013 0 Comments

(An oldie but still a goodie. Note: the full article is now behind a pay-to-read firewall.)

Brain-gearsFound a wonderful article in New Scientist by Kate Douglas called “The subconscious mind: your unsung hero“ (published December 1, 2007).  Really a first-rate discussion of conscious and nonconscious brain processes, how they differ (not as easily defined as you might think) and how the nonconscious plays an important role in many of our most human attributes, including creativity, memory, learning, and language.

A couple of good quotes … first, today’s “nonconscious” is not Freud’s “subconscious”:

Modern notions of the subconscious were invented by Sigmund Freud as part of his now-discredited theory of psychoanalysis. These days the subconscious is on a firmer scientific footing – although many neurobiologists avoid the word “subconscious”, preferring “non-conscious”, “pre-conscious” or “unconscious” to describe thought processes that happen outside consciousness. Where Freud and his followers saw the subconscious as little more than an emotional and impulsive force in a constant tug of war with the more logical and detached conscious mind, we now know that this view is too simplistic. Our subconscious is not an unthinking autopilot that needs to be subjugated by rationality, but a purposeful, active and independent guide to behaviour.

Second, you can’t just take a picture of a brain and tell whether you’re seeing a conscious vs. nonconscious thought.  This is relevant for some of our fMRI friends, who sometimes like to say that if a certain area of the brain lights up, a particular thought must have caused it.  Not so fast:

So far, there is no reliable way to distinguish between conscious and subconscious thought processes. They can be described easily enough – psychologists use terms such as explicit/implicit, procedural/declarative or automatic/controlled to distinguish between the thought process. Explicit, declarative – or conscious – thoughts are those that can easily be expressed in words, for example, whereas subconscious ones are hard to articulate. Conscious thought processes are disrupted if you are forced to direct your attention elsewhere. Subconscious ones are not. But as yet you cannot simply look at an image of the brain and say what kind of thought process is being used.

Douglas mentions some fascinating studies.

Cul, Baillet, and Dehaene look at the “threshold of consciousness” problem using high-density ERPs (an application of EEG, not fMRI) to observe real-time brain processes as words are flashed on a screen, at first too fast to see consciously (20 milliseconds), and then more slowly until conscious perception occurs (at about 50 ms).  Great pictures of the “global ignition” that occurs at conscious recognition.

Daw, Niv, and Dayan (citation only) present a four-part model of conscious-nonconscious brain processing that Douglas illustrates with a great diagram (here).  The four parts are:

  1. The “Pavlovian controller” – aka the brain’s autopilot
  2. The “goal directed controller” – works more like our traditional concept of “rational thought”
  3. The “episodic controller” – conscious but more heuristic, takes over when information is scarce and looks for responses that have worked in similar situations in the past
  4. The “habitual controller” – handles learned expertise, for example, effortless driving, musical instrument playing

As Douglas summarizes the model:

In this model, subconscious/implicit thought processes and conscious/explicit ones are more like equal partners than competitors. The two work together in the goal-directed controller, for example, to evaluate all the available information whether consciously or subconsciously perceived. So, for example, your decision to buy a certain product may be influenced by both explicit factors such as price and quality and implicit ones such as your mood, or an advert that you have seen but not necessarily noticed.

This is an example of science journalism at its best.  I recommend it to anyone who is interested in getting a good foundation on the topic of consciousness and our current understanding of the preconscious / unconscious / nonconscious.

Del Cul A, Baillet S, & Dehaene S (2007). Brain dynamics underlying the nonlinear threshold for access to consciousness. PLoS biology, 5 (10) PMID: 17896866

Daw ND, Niv Y, & Dayan P (2005). Uncertainty-based competition between prefrontal and dorsolateral striatal systems for behavioral control. Nature neuroscience, 8 (12), 1704-11 PMID: 16286932

Originally posted in my previous blog on December 14, 2008.

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About the Author:

Steve is a pioneer in the field of neuromarketing. He founded one of the first neuromarketing research firms in 2006 and published the first comprehensive overview of the field, Neuromarketing for Dummies, in 2013. He established Intuitive Consumer Insights in 2012 to help clients, vendors, and industry associations navigate the opportunities and challenges neuromarketing presents to the marketing and market research communities.

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