What is the Subconscious Mind?
The Subconscious/Unconscious/Other-than-conscious Mind “Is there really such a thing? I mean, do we have a second mind, thinking different things than we are?” This was a question that brought home a point that we hypnotists often take for granted. Hypnotists might be considered Olympic swimmers in the pool of the subconscious mind, but sometimes, we take for granted that some people have never seen a swimming pool (even though, in this case, we all have one, whether we know it or not). We deal with it so frequently that we forget that, to some, this inner mind is a concept entangled in mythology & mysticism. While there may well be mythic and mystic properties that defy classification, there’s still plenty that we can put our finger on. Be aware that in this little discussion, we won’t really be discussing the brain. The mind and brain are two different, though inseparable, things. The brain is an organ, a material thing. It happens to be a material thing that our mind works through, but the brain is still a brain, whether it’s working or not, in a person’s head or in a jar in some lab. It’s easy to identify and point to. The mind is much trickier to define. You could say it’s what a person is, including the series of processes, and even “brain functions,” that make up that person (some people feel that certain brain functions are outside of the control of the mind, but personally, I have my doubts about that. I feel that almost every function that I’m aware of that goes through the brain can be affected in some way or other by mental functions). Do we have a subconscious mind? Yes. Exactly what is it? You’ll find different sources have somewhat interpretations of what specifically it includes and how it functions, but I’ll share my interpretation and what works for me. Of course, others may have a different spin on it. First of all, we only have one mind. The conscious and subconscious are different functions of the same mind. I prefer to think of the two as opposite ends of a single scale, rather than totally separate. Some things are clearly conscious or subconscious, while other things demonstrate degrees of one or the other. Conscious Functions Your mind processes thoughts and it processes emotions. We’re aware of the way the conscious part of the mind processes things. In a nutshell, the conscious part of the mind works its functions in a linear fashion, which is to say one thing at a time. That’s why it’s easier to focus on one thing at a time, and other things become distractions. “But wait!” you say, “I’m a multi-tasker! I can watch TV, write
reports, make a phone call and eat a cheeseburger, all at the same time!” Well, a lot of people are multi-functional to some degree, but scientists have discovered that most people can hold about seven things in their minds at one time before they have to run for the Post-it notes. Specifically, they say the conscious part of the mind can handle seven, plus or minus two (7±2) or, to us on Earth, between five and nine things at one time. It prefers to handle things sequentially so that it can apply the full power of its faculties to the subject at hand. Because the conscious part of the mind is the one that handles sequential information, it has the ability to think chronologically, and consider both, what has occurred in the past, and what the consequences of its actions will be in the future. It’s also the part of the mind that is self-aware. If the conscious part of the mind is the player on the stage, full of all the awareness and self-consciousness of an actor remembering and acting his lines from scene to scene, then the subconscious is the stage-manager and the whole backstage crew: unseen and unheard, but indispensible for the actor to succeed in his part. Subconscious Functions Let’s talk about that other part of the mind now. It’s called the unconscious, although it’s anything but. It’s also called the subconscious, because some people see it as functioning below the level of the consciousness, but its functions are really interwoven into the conscious. Perhaps the most fitting is other-thanconscious, which is an excellent term, and one I learned from one of my teachers, Doug O’Brien, who got it from one of his teachers, Dave Dobson. This other-part-ofthe-mind really deals with everything that the conscious mind doesn’t. Personally, I use all three terms. Each has strengths & weaknesses, but for the sake of consistency, in this work, I’m going to use the term ‘subconscious.” Now, a human is a complicated machine. On a purely physical level, there are a lot of functions going on that need to be continuously monitored and controlled, and it goes through the brain, and so, the mind. For example, we generally aren’t aware of our blood pressure, breathing rate or digestive functions. The subconscious mind regulates these things. However, with practice, we can learn to have control of them. We can learn to bring them into our consciousness. At the same time, the mind holds an amazing store of memories, yet, until we need to access one of those memories, we tend not even to be aware of them. Still, we can usually call one up in a fraction of a second. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the subconscious is that it responds spontaneously. Instinctive reactions are, therefore, “unconscious” reactions. The subconscious also holds our “map of the world.” The map is comprised of the presuppositions that allow us to function smoothly in our world everyday. All those things we know so well about ourselves and how we fit onto our environment, that we generally tend not to be aware of them. That would include what we believe to be immutable laws regarding our material and social surroundings, the things we know we should gravitate to, avoid, as well as habits, tendencies, and so forth.
Some of these are things we’ve learned (firsthand experience), others are things we’ve been taught, either directly or indirectly. The subconscious mind handles all of these processes and more, and it handles them all simultaneously. It would obviously have to, to maintain the smooth physiological functioning of the body, if nothing else. It wouldn’t do for it to have to stop regulating the breathing before it focused on regulated the heartbeat, or stopped regulating the body’s temperature while trying to recall a phone number, and so forth. All of those functions MUST go on at the same time. You can find many different quotes about the total number of things that the subconscious mind can handle simultaneously. Many of the numbers are different, but they all have a lot of zeros! Like, millions upon millions. In fact, your subconscious handles EVERYTHING that your conscious mind doesn’t, however many that might be. You may be aware of reading this document, and a few other things, but there’s so much more information being handled by your subconscious that you are not aware of: memories, feelings, habits, and instincts; and everything your body is doing, all the time. Right now, for example, as you read this, receptors in your skin are feeding your mind the air temperature of the room as well as your internal temperature, your ears are picking up sounds that your conscious mind doesn’t notice, your various organs are feeding information back into your brain, and your subconscious mind is taking all of this in and responding to it, as required. It handles all of this simultaneously, and it can access any of the things it needs in an instant. A loud sound sparks an instinctive reaction from the subconscious, while the conscious mind is spending some moments evaluating what that sound might be and where it came from. In order to handle all of this material, all of these parallel threads of information and to be able to organize and access them, it creates connections between them, so that when it accesses one significant bit of data, it can quickly get other, related bits if it needs to. And one of the main ways that it organizes these bits of data is by emotion (see, those emotions DO serve a purpose). Think about it for a second: it’s easier to bring up emotionally similar thoughts and memories, isn’t it? (Try it now. Think of a happy thought, and then see what thought comes up right after that one. It will probably be very similar, emotionally. If you continue to probe for more memories in the same vein, you’ll find that the emotional state also intensifies though that search process). Because numerous subconscious processes can run at the same time, the subconscious doesn’t have much of a grasp of time and chronological order. Putting Them Together The metaphor that is commonly used to describe the relationship between the conscious and subconscious parts is that the mind is like an iceberg. No matter how big it seems, the part we see (are aware of) is only about a tenth of what exists
below the waterline. The above-the-water part of the iceberg needs the much larger below-the-water portion to keep it afloat. It’s that below-the-water part that also interacts with the surrounding water and dictates the direction the iceberg will go. Now, the conscious mind is free to focus its attention on the things around it and the tasks at hand, like a searchlight that can be focused from a wide beam down to a fine laser-like beam. It is free to do that because the subconscious is capable of handling so much else. But how does the mind know what to be aware of consciously, and what is best left to the subconscious? When we first enter the world, everything we’re aware of has equal importance. A baby is as aware of the sound of a voice as he is of the texture of the blanket underneath him, the temperature of the air, the feelings in his tummy, the color of the wall, the smell of his mom, and a million other things. A baby’s first job is to figure out which of those sensations is important to be aware of and which isn’t. Obviously, things related to his comfort take top priority, along with things related to mom. If you’ve ever been around really young babies, you can see then reacting to all the things around them. All of that silly baby stuff they do, the looking, touching and tasting you see then do, is actually the serious work of learning how to make sense of the world he’s in. Human babies develop slowly, because it takes a long time! He learns that some things are ‘good’ and others aren’t. Now we adults know that good and bad aren’t absolutes, but it’s the first classification system that we use when we’re born, and it sticks with us. Good and bad are things that we believe about the things we know. It’s believed that the conscious mind develops as the person develops, and that children react primarily through the subconscious mind, and gradually develop into their conscious reactions as they grow up until about their late teenage years. It’s certainly true that kids’ experience exist very much in the moment, and therefore, via the subconscious. The ability to be aware of the results of one’s actions is one of the hallmarks of what we consider “maturity,” which, not coincidentally, takes many years to develop in a human being. Gradually, people build up a structure of beliefs from their experiences. Beliefs are the things that form the “truths” for the individual. Some truths are universal, like the awareness of gravity, and fire being hot, others are more personalized and subjective, like Minnesota being the best place on earth, and frogs’ legs being delicious. The beliefs that people have about themselves and their surroundings will dictate who they are and how they go through the world. Beliefs are acquired through personal experience and by being learned, either directly from others or from one’s culture and environment. A belief is a learning or an experience that has been generalized into a rule, and as a rule, is applied to future, and sometimes past, situations.
Remember that ‘map of the world’ we talked about? It’s mapped out in beliefs. Beliefs also do something else: they act as gate-keepers to the mind. Since they are the truths the mind accepts, they also form the standard that all new incoming data is judged by. If a new fact or experience is brought before the awareness, the mind will compare it to what it already knows. If the fact agrees with what it already knows, it’s accepted, otherwise, it’s rejected. They function as filters, too. For example, if I present someone with a dish they’ve never tried before, they may be hesitant to try it. If I then let them know it’s made of frogs’ legs, and one of their beliefs is that frogs’ legs taste good, they will accept that the dish is worth trying. On the other hand, if I offer them a glass of paint to wash it down with (why not? They already ate frogs’ legs), their mind will instantly reject the glass, since they know (have the belief) that paint isn’t good to consume. Mind you, these comparisons happen at an unconscious level, which is to say, instantaneously. In some cases, a person may have a momentary debate with themselves before committing to the course of action to follow, but that’s usually because they are questioning their initial response, or because more than one differing belief was evoked simultaneously. Now, this is an excellent system, but the quality of its output depends on the quality of the beliefs it operates by, and this is where the problems can arise. Beliefs are installed as a result of situations that are encountered. That is to say, humans don’t come pre-loaded with all the answers; we learn (create beliefs) according to what we encounter. The beliefs which are formed are the best choices available at the time with the available information, but such choices aren’t always the best to carry throughout life. In fact, some beliefs aren’t very good at all. Phobias, biases, poor self-image issues, and inappropriate behaviors are usually the result of people working from less-than optimal beliefs. To illustrate: A man once went to the circus. Out back behind the tents, he saw a huge elephant tied to a bush with a thin bit of rope attached to his collar. It was such an incongruous sight that he couldn’t stop looking. Imagine an elephant big enough to move a house and as tall as a tree, held to one place, a tiny bush, by something that, to the elephant, was no bigger than a thread. Was it some sort of joke? He finally had to ask one of the trainers about it. The trainer explained to him that they got the elephant as a baby, and they always tied him to a bush with that kind of rope to keep him from getting away. As a baby he tried a few times to pull away, but he wasn’t strong enough to break the rope. When he grew up, he had learned to believe that that rope was unbreakable. The conscious mind functions within the confines that the subconscious defines, since it’s the subconscious that dictates what truths constitute an individual’s reality. You probably know someone who could be achieving so much more with their lives, but are hampered by their limiting beliefs, and you might also know
someone who’s achieved things that seem impossible, simply because they “believed in themselves.” Seems like changing a person’s beliefs can change, well, everything. So why do so many people have so many difficulties? Why not just change beliefs? Here’s the crux of a lot of things. Because beliefs hold court in the subconscious, down below the “water-line,” it’s very difficult to change them consciously. People frequently struggle to change a habit, and sometimes succeed for a while, but they nearly always encounter a lot of internal resistance, and that’s because deep down, the new belief they’re trying to install is conflicting with the existing belief, and as you know, the mind is unwilling to accept it. This is why ways of self-improvement that rely on conscious effort & will power meet so much difficulty. Does this mean that you can’t change existing beliefs? Not at all. The system is dynamic, and is actually very willing to acquire newer, better beliefs, providing that they’re clearly advantageous, and that there’s no potential for danger to the individual. It has to be understood that a better belief, to the subconscious, is a belief that feels better, not one that can be justified intellectually. To that end, some very bad behavior, like an addiction, might seem to be a better behavior to the subconscious, as long as it feels better and doesn’t feel like it endangers the person. The subconscious’ idea of safety is also about feeling safe, and not the “safety” that can be intellectualized. In practice any change, especially if it has elements of the unknown, is usually perceived as a potential danger. To the subconscious mind, “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” Intellectual justifications are sufficient criteria for the conscious mind, but the subconscious, since it is only concerned with the eternal now, is only aware of what it feels in the moment and about the moment. Now, to get back to that other part of the original question… is the subconscious mind a different mind? Not at all. However, when a person’s conscious mind comes in conflict with their subconsciously held beliefs, this creates tension. The more one consciously tries to will the subconscious mind to go against a belief it holds (which, for the subconscious is the truth), the more resistance is experienced. By applying continued attention to the conflict, and to one side of the argument or the other, it almost seems to take on a life of its own. Be aware that this is my answer to the question of the subconscious. It’s simplified, and, arguably, subjective. It is by no means the only interpretation, and I advise you to explore others, and find the one that seems most correct and verifiable to you. I welcome all feedback! © 2009 Jeff Sauber http://successworkhypnosis.blogspot.com/ http://www.meetup.com/nlp-hypnosis-coaching-nyc/