After some time, when you master the skill of driving, you find that you need not be 100% involved in the activity. You can listen to music or talk to others as you simultaneously coordinate all your limbs to steer your vehicle forward.
What part of your mind is controlling the driving activity now?
To what have you now delegated and relegated the task of driving while you indulge in other things?
If an object is suddenly thrown at your face, you find that you’ve automatically blinked before you even figure out what’s happening. What generated this automatic response outside of your awareness?
When you 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?
Lastly, why is it that changing some of your behaviors and habits is hard, even though you consciously want to change them? What’s carrying out these largely automatic behaviors?
The answer to all these questions is ‘the subconscious mind’.
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 you will be consciously involved in the task when you execute it. Your conscious mind (i.e. you) takes in the verbal information I provide you, interprets it, and then carries 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 is in control.
The subconscious mind is just a metaphor
The term “subconscious mind” is essentially a metaphor for your older brain structures as opposed to your more recently evolved cortical structures (such as the prefrontal cortex).
While some functions of the subconscious mind such as breathing can be consciously controlled, one has no control over some of its other automatic responses such as reflex actions.
There’s a good deal of evidence that shows subconsciously perceived information induces distinct neurophysiological changes and influences behavior towards the consciously perceived world. Also, studies show that older, subcortical structures play a substantial role in processing many emotional stimuli without being consciously perceived.1
David Goleman also highlighted this point in his book Emotional Intelligence. Information from the environment can be processed directly by our older, subcortical brain structures before our conscious part of the brain gets the chance to make sense of it.
Although brain imaging research2 suggests that the neural pathways of the conscious and the subconscious mind can be clearly differentiated, subconscious thoughts do not seem to have their own unique processing pathway. Rather, they share the bits of both- conscious and unconscious- routes of information processing.3
This is probably why we’re not automatic robots susceptible to the ever-changing storm of stimuli from the environment but can consciously intervene to modify our unconscious behavior.
Role of attention span
We, humans, have a very limited 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 deserve our attention more.
For example, while brushing teeth at night your conscious mind may drift away, recalling important emotional events of the day, while your subconscious takes care of the brushing activity.
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, unless you’re a flat-earther!) and therefore it will reject and filter this information to prevent it from turning into a belief.
Human behavior is the product of constant interactions between unconscious and conscious thoughts, influenced by internal (physiological) and external (environmental) factors.
1. Tamietto, M., & De Gelder, B. (2010). Neural bases of the non-conscious perception of emotional signals. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(10), 697-709.
2. Meneguzzo, P., Tsakiris, M., Schioth, H. B., Stein, D. J., & Brooks, S. J. (2014). Subliminal versus supraliminal stimuli activate neural responses in anterior cingulate cortex, fusiform gyrus and insula: a meta-analysis of fMRI studies. BMC psychology, 2(1), 52.
3. Horga, G., & Maia, T. V. (2012). Conscious and unconscious processes in cognitive control: a theoretical perspective and a novel empirical approach. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6.