The Subconscious Mind – Be careful what you wish for!
6 Basic Functions
The subconscious refers to that part of the brain which directs behaviour performed reflexively or without conscious awareness. There is now considerable evidence to suggest that the subconscious forms the sum total of all our past experiences and guides the majority of our daily thinking, information processing and behaviour. Taken in concert, research suggests that the subconscious performs a number of functions:
1. Recording and storing: The first function of the subconscious is to record and store our interpretation of reality, much like a computer hard drive. It has been estimated that the human brain contains 10–14 billion neuron cells and that each of these cells can store one to two million bits of information. This automatic recording process begins operating before birth and stores all our experiences, including what we think about and feel in response to those experiences. We might think of the subconscious starting life as a blank canvas, each experience then adds a brush stroke to our picture of reality, which we then call the ‘truth’. This picture or reality stored in the neuron structure of the brain may not be the absolute truth, however, it is only the truth as seen and remembered by us.
2. Habits: A second function of the subconscious is to handle automatic functions (heart-beat, breathing, circulation, digestion, blinking) and learned automatic functions (tying shoes, walking, driving, playing a guitar, multiplication tables). All of these learned functions begin on the conscious level then, through repetition, are turned over to the subconscious and become habits. Most of the time habits are helpful and assist with greater efficiency. Sometimes however, habits stored on the subconscious level can also be barriers to change, adjusting to new situations and to safety.
3. Auto-pilot personality: The third function of the subconscious is to maintain our perception of reality by making us act as the person we believe ourselves to be. This picture is based upon our current dominant image of the ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ as recorded from our subjective interpretation of the world. For example, if an individual believes that they are a poor public speaker, this will drive their approach to a public speaking engagement, creating feelings of anxiety and nervousness, which impact negatively on the individual’s performance during the speech. This effectively reinforces the original belief that they are a poor public speaker. In a similar fashion, the subconscious also drives the commonly cited ‘risk-taking’ personality. In this case, a ‘risk taker’ will approach a potentially risky situation believing that they ‘enjoy taking risks, it is a part of their personality, and that they will survive the experience’. These thoughts cause a release of chemicals that the individual interprets as heightened arousal and excitement, which in turn, confirms their belief that they enjoy taking risks.
4. Creative problem-solver: The fourth function of the subconscious is to solve problems creatively. Just like a researcher, the creative subconscious scans one’s memory banks for information in order to piece together bits of information into a possible solution. Effectively, problems can be solved without conscious effort and daily challenges and new experiences are more likely to be accepted.
5. Energy source: The fifth function of the subconscious is to provide drive and energy to resolve conflicts and accomplish goals. If an activity is not DIPI (dangerous, important, pleasurable, and interesting) the subconscious mind will release no energy to complete the activity. This is the science behind procrastination, whereby people avoid tasks and experience little drive to complete them until shortly before the due date. As the deadline approaches, the potential danger and importance of the task increases, and the subconscious releases more energy to complete the task. The challenge therefore, is to work with this function rather than against it. What this means is that instead of considering the negative, hard, or mundane aspects of important activities, emphasise the important, interesting and potentially pleasurable aspects of completing such activities.
6. Goal-seeker: The sixth function of the subconscious is to ensure human beings are goal oriented and achievement striving. This function operates in conjunction with that described above, in that goals ensure that an activity remains ‘DIPI’, ensuring energy is released to complete the activity and achieve the goal. With the conscious mind having such a limited processing capacity, it is the subconscious that drives almost all of our daily processes. Indeed, given that the conscious is limited to processing seven units of information at any one time, the subconscious drives more than 99.7 per cent of daily functioning. This means that we essentially are our subconscious. As the subconscious is comprised of memory and habits, and memory and habits are basically types of thinking patterns (attitudes), it is therefore also true to say that we are our thinking patterns. Hence, an understanding of thinking patterns is crucial for effective leadership and improving safety performance.
The GIGO principle originates from the computer industry and stands for ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’. That’s what computer experts refer to when a computer is programmed with the wrong information and hence gives the wrong result. The computer is an incredible machine that can only work with the information you give it. GIGO is true of the human mind too, with the relationship between the subconscious and conscious often likened to that between a computer and its programmer. That is, garbage thinking patterns in: garbage results out and good thinking patterns in: good results out.