Friend or Foe?
The human brain is an elaborate and highly integrated grid consisting of billions of neurons and trillions of connections. Its capacity to acquire sensory information is exponential. The brain processes 400 billion bits of information per second, however, we are only aware of 2,000 of those. The mind takes care of all the essential items that we automatically need to respond to and yet not necessarily are conscious of. This responsibility falls mainly on the subconscious. There are a myriad of bodily functions including breathing and the pumping action of the heart that would take up all of our thinking if we were required to consciously remember to do daily. Walking, talking and driving are all programs we have deliberately created and have now become routine habits. Normal life would be impossible without the subconscious mind. Conversely, while the ability of certain stimuli to elicit physiological, behavioral and emotional responses from the subconscious can be beneficial, it also masks any negative associations we make with them.
Pavlov’s dog is a popular reference often used to introduce the concept of the unconscious capabilities of the mind. The 1927 experiment was the first presentation of classical conditioning. Dogs were conditioned to respond to various stimuli such as bells, whistles and metronomes; every time the bell sounded the dog would be fed. Eventually the dog would automatically begin to salivate upon hearing the stimuli, regardless of whether food was present. Similar conditioned responses have also been demonstrated in other areas. The psychologist B.F. Skinner experimented with the idea of operant conditioning where a behavior can be modified by its consequence. Pigeons and rats made behavioral associations based on the result of their actions. Food or water was rewarded when one lever was pressed, while a shock was administered if an alternate lever was pressed. The possibility of reward may increase one’s behaviour and the anticipation of punishment may decrease an undesired behavior. Negative and positive reinforcement are just a couple of examples of programs that can become ingrained in our subconscious with or without our knowledge.
The traditional view in psychology implies that emotions are a conscious action. You feel it, therefore you must be aware of it. This original belief has been challenged and it is now widely accepted that cognitive processes (emotions) can be unconscious therefore occurring without intention. In 1997, an initial attempt to demonstrate unconscious emotion was made through a series of studies by Winkielman, Zajonc & Schwarz. Participants were asked to rate a neutral stimuli, such as inkblots, after subliminally being presented with a happy or angry face. The neutral stimuli were preferred when the participant was initially exposed to a happy face as opposed to an angry face even though both were subliminal messages. In a more recent 2008 study, scientists from the Max Planck Institute examining Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences revealed that decisions are made before we are aware of them. Researchers found micro patterns of activity in the frontopolar cortex of the brain 7 seconds before the participant was conscious of the choice. The subconscious mind is powerful enough to alter behavior and emotion without our knowledge.
The subconscious mind is a reservoir of feelings, thoughts, urges and memories. Research shows that it takes between 90 seconds and 4 minutes to decide if you are attracted to someone. That attraction is based 7% on what is actually said, 55% on body language and 38% on the tone and speed of voice. The subconscious influences our current behavior. Furthermore, past relationship experiences may also trigger unconscious responses. A previous heated debate with a partner that provokes a strong emotional response, like anger, may become stored in the subconscious. Consequently, in a future conversation the original emotional response can immediately return. The conversation may actually have no relevance to the past debate and may simply be an innocent exchange. For instance, your partner may ask, “where are the car keys?” If the tone of voice or body language is similar to a previous argument or comes across aggressively, you may believe they are blaming you for the lost keys even though they may just be wondering if you have seen them. Regardless, the subconscious recognizes the similar tone or body language and automatically gives a similar response; defenses go up, anger rises and an argument is inevitable. The unpleasant content stored in the subconscious triggers programmed behaviors, all of which can be the source of relationship turmoil.
Difficulty sleeping may also have associations with subconscious programs. A child suddenly waking from a deep sleep in a dark room to the sound of parents fighting can be traumatic. Later in adulthood, subconscious emotions may be triggered every time they try to sleep in the dark. The slightest noise can cause them to wake. The experiences that register in the subconscious are not always a significant event, they may have occurred once or often. Potential fire or robbery are similar examples of threats to our survival that might create sleeping problems.
Physiological changes caused by unconscious programs are not only for Pavlov’s dogs. They are quite applicable to humans. Infertility can be one such instance affected by the subconscious. Women sometimes spend years using numerous birth control methods to avoid conceiving a child. Unfortunately, when the time comes for wanting a child, the subconscious may still be telling the body, “nope, not going to happen”. The negative experiences of other women may also have an influence on fertility; friends having difficulties getting pregnant may unconsciously inhibit their ability.
Subconscious programs can unknowingly interfere with daily life, work, relationships and health. While there is, of course, a great benefit to the power of the subconscious, the unpleasant consequences are not always desired. At Nature Medicine, we offer therapies to help delete these subconscious programs and correct the negative adverse reactions to previous events. These include the Mental Reprogramming Technique and BioClimate Reprogramming (please refer to the individual sections for more information).
- Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze & John-Dylan Haynes. Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain. Nature Neuroscience, April 13th, 2008.