Introduction to the conscious and the subconscious mind

By Hanan Parvez

While learning to drive a car, in the beginning you need to be greatly focused, alert and aware. Your mind is working on the task, being 100% involved.

After some time, when you master the skill of driving, you find that you need not be 100% focused. You can freely listen to music or even talk to others in the car whilst driving.

What part of your mind is controlling the driving activity now?

To what have you now delegated or relegated the task of driving while you indulge in other things?

If a ball comes near your eye, before you even figure out what's happening you find that you've automatically blinked. Who generated this response if it wasn't you?

When you accidentally touch a hot stove or a naked electrical wire, what mysterious force inside you pulls your hand back instantly, before you even figure out what's going on?

Why changing some of your behaviours and habits is hard even though you may consciously want to do change them? Who's carrying out these behaviours if it's not you? Who's in charge?

The subconscious mind

Your mind is essentially comprised of two parts- the conscious and the subconscious mind. Understanding the difference between the conscious and the subconscious mind forms the very crux of understanding human behaviour.

mind iceberg
If your mind were an iceberg, than the portion above the surface of water is the conscious mind and the portion below is the subconscious mind. 
When you're doing a task and are aware of the fact that you're doing it, the conscious mind is in action.

For instance, if I tell you to put a book on the table then you will be consciously involved in the task. Your concious mind takes in the verbal information I provide you, interprets it and then makes you carry out the task.

On the contrary, when you're doing something and are not aware of the fact that you're doing it and it seems that the task is running on autopilot, then the subconscious mind has taken over.

We humans have a very limited and narrow attention span. The conscious mind learns the task that is required to be done repeatedly and then hands it over to the subconscious mind so that it can make itself available to the more immediate tasks or the ones that need our attention more.

For example, while brushing the teeth at night your conscious mind may drift away, recalling the events of the day, while your subconscious takes care of the brushing activity.

A dull, repetitive, habitual activity such as brushing is sort of unworthy for the conscious mind to give its precious attention to when thinking about whether or not you'll get fired tomorrow is more important.

Conscious mind, the filterer

The conscious mind also acts as a filterer and logical processor of the information that is received by it from the external environment. Based on this received information, it forms beliefs and then stores these beliefs in the subconscious mind so that the behavior which is consistent with such beliefs is carried out automatically.

If I ask you how much 2+2 is, you’ll use your conscious mind to calculate the answer. If I tell you that the earth is flat, your conscious mind will process this information, only to find out that it isn't true (based on your knowledge of the earth being round) and therefore it will reject and filter this info to prevent it from turning into a belief.

Subconscious mind, the recorder
The subconscious mind is much more subtle and I can confidently say that the entire psychology of an individual revolves around it.

You now have some idea regarding the situations in which the subconscious mind comes into play. To reiterate an earlier example, when you accidentally touch something hot, before you even realize what actually happened, you find that you have already pulled your hand back within a fraction of a second.

It is a reflex action controlled by the subconscious mind. The conscious mind always needs some time for processing and is therefore slower. The subconscious mind is very fast and automatic.

You can think of the subconscious mind as some kind of a video recorder of all the information that you've been exposed to up until this moment. This includes all your memories, life experiences, skills, even your evolutionary history!

All this information would be too much for the conscious mind to hold on to and since it has to constantly deal with the present moment, there needs to be some other kind of storage system in the background.

This storage system that works in the background is the subconscious mind.

Learning about the subconscious mind and how it works is of central importance in understanding human behaviour since it is responsible for beliefs, needs and emotions- psychological mechanisms that drive behaviour.

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