A subconsciousness raising exercise

This week’s New Scientist has a cover story on the psychology that goes on behind the scenes, in the subconscious.

Or you could call it the unconscious, or the pre-conscious. Despite the differences in terminology it’s much the same idea. Essentially, it’s the work the brain does that we’re not conscious of.

Unfortunately, the article has a bit of an excruciating tag-line:

Subconscious thought processes may play a crucial role in many of the mental facilities we prize as uniquely human, including creativity, memory, learning and language.

Next week: Sea contains water! Don’t be put off though, the article’s actually a good guide to some of the latest theories on how information crosses the consciousness divide.

What’s more, non-conscious thinking may actually work best in some cases where you might imagine rational, conscious thought is the best tool for the job. In situations where people have to make difficult choices based on large amounts of hard-to-assess information, psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands has found that they are happier with their decision when acting on gut instinct than when forced to try to think the choice through rationally (New Scientist, 5 May 2007, p 35). Dijksterhuis is convinced that subconscious thought processes are superior in many situations – including most social interactions – because they allow us to integrate complex information in a more holistic way than can be managed by rational thought processes.

Something similar sometimes happens in problem solving, according to Jonathan Schooler from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. By asking subjects to explain their reasoning as they go, he has found that verbalising what they are doing has no effect on people’s ability to solve analytical, mathematical or logic problems but actually hinders performance on insight problems, such as solving a riddle – those for which the solution seems to pop out of the blue in an aha! moment. Remember that subconscious thought processes differ from conscious ones in that we are unable to articulate the former. So here, it seems, is experimental evidence for something we all instinctively know: that subconscious thinking is the source of our inspiration – it is central to creativity.

Rather ironically, for an article on the unconscious, it’s been hidden behind a pay wall. So you’ll need to get a copy from your newsagent, or if you want to expand the subconscious mind, photocopy it in the library.

Link to table of contents for this week’s NewSci.

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