Don’t Stop Me. I’m About to Open Pandora’s Box

conscious vs unconscious

My work for Subliminal Today in reprogramming minds is incredibly interesting to say the least. It’s extremely rewarding to see people change their lives and businesses, and become who and what they truly want to be. This joy never ever wears thin but it is not the only reason that I’m passionate about what I do.

Psychology is a marriage of Science and Philosophy with a mission to understand consciousness. In some respects, focusing only on consciousness is a tad boring and limiting. I, like you maybe, have been absolutely fascinated by the Freudian idea of the subconscious mind since I first saw that all time classic illustration of “the mind’s iceberg” in my Psychology textbook. The illustration shows how most of who we are resides underneath the surface, like an iceberg. Freud attempted (and succeeded for a very long time) in revising the scope of mainstream psychology.

Our unconscious mind plays a far greater role than we would like to believe. It is however, misunderstood and unexplored, for theories of the unconscious are bedeviled by contradiction and subtlety. As I learnt more, I soon realized that the unconscious houses the very essence of who we are, as individuals and as a species. How we have come to understand this part of ourselves has changed over the years, and this has made my pursuits ever more demonstrable and tangible.

The real reason I’m so fascinated about our subliminal world is because it teaches us so much about our humanity.

Neurologists scour the brain to find consciousness. Before the advent of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), the brain could only be studied when it malfunctioned. When someone lost a part of their brain in an accident, seizure or illness, the loss in cognitive functioning pointed to the part of the brain where that functioning normally occurs. As you may imagine, this didn’t quite lend itself to a rapid research timetable.

Lights! Camera! Action!

MRI allows us to observe our brains in action and brings us so much closer to understanding the structure of consciousness. If you’ve ever seen an MRI study, you’ll know that it is not just pretty picture – in real time, it looks far more like a fireworks display in fast forward as brain structures light up, revealing cognitive functioning.

Admittedly, these images cannot reveal thoughts directly, however we can imply meaning to the firework display through stimulus-response experimentation. For example, if a guy is shown a picture of pretty girl in a bikini, we can pretty much know what he’s thinking.

Our best guess is that our consciousness may be found in the prefrontal cortex – that is, just behind the forehead. This guess is based on the fact that it is the very last place which flashes up when we make decisions. This is where we are either aware of what we’re just about to do or where the decision is rubber stamped – either way, it equates to some sort of definition of consciousness.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m an admirer of Freud. This alone, isn’t remotely interesting. Even if we were to understand conscious thought, this would be a very narrow view of our humanity. In order to truly glean who we are, we need to zoom out and bring our unconscious selves into the frame.

The origins of thought

In order to shed light on our unconsciousness we need to track back and when we do so, we find ourselves at the opposite side of the brain. While a thought finishes its journey in the neurons behind our forehead, it begins far away, near the brain stem in an area called the Ventral Pallidum.

Not only is this area the origin of thought, it is also the origin of our brain. Our reptilian brain is the platform around which evolved the structures we usually associate with higher cognitive functioning. It makes perfect sense then, that any thought would naturally begin in the ventral pallidum as a rudimentary impulse.

Our reptilian brain governs many of our unconscious processes but most importantly the secretion of hormones which control our flight and fight reactions. It forms part of an instinctual pathway which short circuits the rest of the brain to ensure a definite response is forthcoming and timely. It might not always be the most considered response, but that’s sort of the point. Upon closer inspection, this is an unconscious decision making loop.

Our unconscious controls our breathing, heart rate and body clocks – it is the part of us which concerns itself with what it best handled automatically. It frees us up to do cooler stuff like planning, evaluating and problem solving. Remarkably, when we trace back decisions which we would otherwise feel to be wholly conscious, we find ourselves here, where the dance between our unconscious and conscious selves begins.

What shall we have for dinner tonight darling?

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We are certainly left with the illusion that when we go shopping for something for dinner, we are making a bold conscious choice. If we were wrapped up in boring tasks all day long, this might be the most exciting decision of our day. We really hope it’s ours to make! But alas, the unconscious mind may well be in play here, with the knowledge of what nutrients our body is lacking, primed by advertising, it nudges us toward a decision. The drive leaps up into consciousness and back and forth it goes, maybe a few thousand times before we reach for the desired item on the shelf.

When considering what portion of the final decision was made consciously, we pry open Pandora’s Box.


Why we can’t locate our consciousness

The trouble is that, what we consider to be two separate pathways is one and the same on an MRI. Both conscious thought and unconscious thought use the same neural pathways. Damn it all! We cannot tell them apart, and so cannot truly pinpoint our conscious mind in its entirety. Add to this more psychological research which shows that once triggered, both conscious and unconscious thought (while travelling along the same neural pathways mind you), maintain the same intensity and drive behaviour to the same degree! Unconscious thought in these studies was triggered subliminally. Hopefully, now you can see where I’m going with this…

…and so flies open the lid of Pandora’s Box

Once in motion, all thoughts operate in the same way – and this is why subliminal messaging works so well. To trigger a thought subliminally (it takes an awful lot of time and repetition to embed) the thought acts no differently from your own unconscious thoughts – and so no differently from your conscious thoughts either.

MRI has revealed that this reptilian brain is the first to react to the presence of subliminal audio and so an important clue to the machinations of unconscious thought. In other words, subliminal suggestions take the same on ramp onto our neural highway as our unconscious decision making.

As we lean ever so gingerly over the box, petrified of what else we may find inside, we are confronted by our very humanity and individuality in the starkest of terms. This next bit strikes at the very heart of what popular culture believes about the nature of free will.

It’s really uncomfortable to think about. The truth is that in this quick fire dance between our unconscious and conscious, we are not in full conscious control of what we decide for dinner, what clothes we will select from our wardrobe tomorrow morning, who we make friends with and in the same breath, what we decide to do with our lives. Outrageous!

Whether or not we possess free will depends on how you define it (and I’ve always been happy to debate this chestnut with my students safe in the knowledge I won’t lose). Nonetheless for argument’s sake, if we do possess free will, it is not necessarily solely in the portfolio of the conscious mind. Herein lays the rub: Any conscious decision is limited by a decision set presented to it by the unconscious. Notch another one up for me and my friend Sigmund.

When we peer into this Pandora’s Box we begin to debate our free will in the appropriate context of conscious and unconscious thought. If we seriously want to debate this any further, we come face to face with who we are.

When do thoughts transform into consciousness? Is this substantively important given they operate in the same way?

We are drawn away from Science back into our Philosophical roots and to the teachings of one Wilhelm Wundt… at least for the time being.

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