The smart unconscious

We feel that we are in control when our brains figure out puzzles or read words, says Tom Stafford, but a new experiment shows just how much work is going on underneath the surface of our conscious minds.

It is a common misconception that we know our own minds. As I move around the world, walking and talking, I experience myself thinking thoughts. “What shall I have for lunch?”, I ask myself. Or I think, “I wonder why she did that?” and try and figure it out. It is natural to assume that this experience of myself is a complete report of my mind. It is natural, but wrong.

There’s an under-mind, all psychologists agree – an unconscious which does a lot of the heavy lifting in the process of thinking. If I ask myself what is the capital of France the answer just comes to mind – Paris! If I decide to wiggle my fingers, they move back and forth in a complex pattern that I didn’t consciously prepare, but which was delivered for my use by the unconscious.

The big debate in psychology is exactly what is done by the unconscious, and what requires conscious thought. Or to use the title of a notable paper on the topic, ‘Is the unconscious smart or dumb?‘ One popular view is that the unconscious can prepare simple stimulus-response actions, deliver basic facts, recognise objects and carry out practised movements. Complex cognition involving planning, logical reasoning and combining ideas, on the other hand, requires conscious thought.

A recent experiment by a team from Israel scores points against this position. Ran Hassin and colleagues used a neat visual trick called Continuous Flash Suppression to put information into participants’ minds without them becoming consciously aware of it. It might sound painful, but in reality it’s actually quite simple. The technique takes advantage of the fact that we have two eyes and our brain usually attempts to fuse the two resulting images into a single coherent view of the world. Continuous Flash Suppression uses light-bending glasses to show people different images in each eye. One eye gets a rapid succession of brightly coloured squares which are so distracting that when genuine information is presented to the other eye, the person is not immediately consciously aware of it. In fact, it can take several seconds for something that is in theory perfectly visible to reach awareness (unless you close one eye to cut out the flashing squares, then you can see the ‘suppressed’ image immediately).

Hassin’s key experiment involved presenting arithmetic questions unconsciously. The questions would be things like “9 – 3 – 4 = ” and they would be followed by the presentation, fully visible, of a target number that the participants were asked to read aloud as quickly as possible. The target number could either be the right answer to the arithmetic question (so, in this case, “2”) or a wrong answer (for instance, “1”). The amazing result is that participants were significantly quicker to read the target number if it was the right answer rather than a wrong one. This shows that the equation had been processed and solved by their minds – even though they had no conscious awareness of it – meaning they were primed to read the right answer quicker than the wrong one.

The result suggests that the unconscious mind has more sophisticated capacities than many have thought. Unlike other tests of non-conscious processing, this wasn’t an automatic response to a stimulus – it required a precise answer following the rules of arithmetic, which you might have assumed would only come with deliberation. The report calls the technique used “a game changer in the study of the unconscious”, arguing that “unconscious processes can perform every fundamental, basic-level function that conscious processes can perform”.

These are strong claims, and the authors acknowledge that there is much work to do as we start to explore the power and reach of our unconscious minds. Like icebergs, most of the operation of our minds remains out of sight. Experiments like this give a glimpse below the surface.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here

36 thoughts on “The smart unconscious”

  1. Nice article. I have the feeling that “popular view is that the unconscious can prepare simple stimulus-response actions, deliver basic facts, recognise objects and carry out practised movements” is just wishful thinking.

    The wish to believe that we are in control. (A necessary by product of the ego perhaps?)

    I would also suggest that we don’t even need such test to prove this. A simply mindfulness of the thought processes going on when we’re solving problems would suffice. I see myself solve problems every day at work not quite knowing where the solutions are coming from. At first that used to annoy me as I didn’t fully understand it, but now I’ve learnt to go with it and trust it.

  2. yep nice article glad they caught up with reality. Wasn’t hard to figure out now was it? Layered brain, few horizontal connections, full body control by all layers, mammals surviving for many millions of years before a hominid even came on the scene…. Obviously the older layers have more control than the newer ones, simple evolutionary mechanism. Only religion fed hubris gave homo sapiens the notion they were different. A real genius wrote that years ago:

  3. I agree with you 5i5i.

    Very good article indeed. The subconscious is such a vague and undiscovered powerful center, that is yet to be understood and brought into the awareness of most people.

    As for the last thing in the comment about the solutions that you don’t know where they come from, I think that’s your intuition and you should always follow it.

    Good Read…Thanks!

  4. I like the idea that the unconscious has more control, so want to believe their findings. I haven’t seen the original paper, however, the example used is not complex maths, but basic subtraction.
    There are a very limited number of ways that you can add and subtract single digit numbers. If I see 7 + 8 in a sentence, I “see” 15 before I’ve reached the full stop. If my unconscious can navigate uneven ground, I would expect it to be able to perform basic arithmetic without my conscious involvement.

      1. The brain definitely does complex computations, but the researchers in this study were testing exact arithmetic. If you are navigating uneven ground, a mm difference in foot placement doesn’t make your foot placement wrong. If you are subtracting 8 and 3 from 15 then being 1 out from the correct answer does make you wrong (and is what they tested in the research discussed)

      2. letting go of the rock at exactly the right moment to get the right ballistic trajectory to hit a moving target to my mind comes down to really fast very accurate computations. I even remember a theory by someone whose name i forgot that language developed as a result of the highly developed ballistic network running idle most of the time. Not that i subscribe to it, but evidently that neurophysiologist found the network pretty damn amazing.

        Perhaps the test used in the paper here wasn’t the right one?

      3. Humans, post-hoc, are good at understanding throwing rocks by using complex maths / physics calculations.

        It’s a non sequitur to then say that, as a result of this, unus, the brain, subconsciously also uses complex maths / physics calculations.

      4. nature doesn’t waste a good thing … If it works for one thing it’ll work for another. That’s how the guy i mentioned came about to post his language origin theory. And ‘subconscious’ is a very strange term anyway, since (name a number) 90% of our actions are done without our prior knowledge.

      5. My contention is that basic arithmetic is no more than applied pattern spotting. And pattern spotting is one of the key functions of the brain. Therefore this is exactly the type of activity you would expect from the unconscious.

  5. This sounds seriously unlikely. Like, ignoble prize level wacky. There’s no reason for the brain to do arithmetic subconsciously. The stuff that happens subconsciously is some amount of word recognition, priming of concepts (“bug” primes for insect and listening device, “red” primes for color and communists). But doing arithmetic? Sorry, this is cog. psych. losing it. Badly.

    When the failures to reproduce come in, remember that I told you first.

  6. Reblogged this on 13Gramarye and commented:
    This is really really cool stuff! Reminds me of a book I read recently called Bowl of Heaven which explores some of the same ideas (in a work of fiction).

  7. I completely agree with Mr. David Littleboy. I don’t think the subconscious is primed for complex tasks, that would render our conscious mind docile and redundant. On a mildly related subject though, Do you think the subconscious could be responsible for déja vu?

  8. Tom, is anyone looking at whether “subconscious” processing might taking place in other areas of the body? For example, could there be a way to measure whether there might some physiological basis for the almost universally accepted idea of intuition, aka, knowing something in your gut? Or, to put it another way, is it possible to determine whether some of this complex processing might be taking place locally, in places in the body besides the brain, using currently available instruments (eeg, MRI, etc.)?

  9. I think of this stuff in terms of learning – even with physical movements. Take the example of learning the motion to do a proper serve in tennis. At first we must consciously try to figure out how to move in a certain way, how to coordinate the ball toss with the racket arm motion. As we learn, more and more of it becomes unconscious – and in fact we will likely screw up if we think about it too much. So perhaps part of what is handled ‘unconsciously’ is in fact learned/memorized/wired in a way that no longer needs ‘conscious’ effort.

  10. For years now I’ve been coming to the conclusion that a lot of what humans think is conscious is actually unconscious. When people explain their reasons for certain decisions, and the alleged thought processes that they followed, it often kind of sound like justification after the fact, and that the decision was actually a somewhat “low level” one. I believe that we think a lot less than we think we do.

  11. i guess there is still some confusion about consciousness. Let me explain for better understanding. What we in our hubris consider to be consciousness is an abstract construct pieced together after by the brain AFTER all data has been processed.
    You consciously live about 0.5 to 1 seconds behind reality.
    In this ‘virtual’ reality we believe we are a homogeneous entity because that’s what the construct is capable of. It cannot know itself as a construct just as little as an interactive game can know it’s a game.

    So all you think, imagine, activate has been preprocessed in advance by the brain and afterwards let’s you know what you did via the virtual interface.

    Sorry if this slams a hole in your self-esteem but that which you call consciousness is only what you have named it by lack of more access to the subprocesses creating it.

    In other words to discuss as something is either subconscious or not is a bit moot.

    1. A good point there from Petrossa. I like the comparison between conscious and subconscious being a bit academic.

      I’d go even further than that:

      The idea that we have a stream of consciousness is demonstrably falsifiable. Think about the last 5 minutes. How much of it were you aware of, in the moment?

      1. Don’t ask me i’m old 🙂 Last minute is hard enough. But already in the 80’s Gazzaniga wrote some very enlightening work on the subject. The Social Brain, The Ethical Brain for example are quite accessible and hard to discount works on consciousness or our lack thereof.

  12. Sadly ridiculous.

    Try thinking (even if .4 sec behind due to the readiness potential) what consciousness refers to. The, having accomplished that task to some reasonable standard of intellectual coherence, be on your way with stipulations about what the newly minted “construct” is and does.

    Talk about hubris! Or is it stipulation?

  13. How much can we interpolate “intuitive mind” for “unconscious”? My experience as a writer is that Intuition knows far more than “I” do – I often see it there, on the paper, with the distinct sense that “I” couldn’t have written that if you held a gun to my head. Of course, the whole issue of control tends to concern the male far more than the female psyche.

  14. Reasoning owes much of itself to subconscious thought. Pre-analytic processing begins with subconscious biases that allow for generation of novel sets, by selection of elements. Selection occurs through (Humean) inductive means, via associative memory – detecting holistic patterns (seeing the tree in a stalk of brocolli) , and recurrences in structure, through time. Our brain intuitively knows that things that ‘look similar’ are related in some way, and it brings these objects together, automatically. Order is established between the elements, through dense neural-glia structure. Analysis comes last.

  15. Hypnosis is a form of communicating with your unconscious mind and has been proven very effective while studying or trying to recall memories, therefore it is my opinion that our unconscious mind is more intelligent than we give it credit. The unconscious mind is in charge of millions of analyses while the conscious mind can only attend to about seven at a time. Our unconscious mind holds all our emotions and memories, we would be nothing without it… thus, the unconscious mind is far more valuable than we could ever grasp.


  16. After reading this posted I tested the theory of the unconscious mind being smarter than it is given credit by starting a school assignment and the leaving it a while. When I started working again I worked twice as fast and could focus better, therefore I do believe that the unconscious mind functions better than the conscious mind.

    1. Cool – I do just the same. Nothing line sleeping on a complex problem.

      There are some really nice proofs of this – you’re given a complex task, involving more than 7 variables (i.e. what we can hold in the working memory), get someone to understand the problem domain…

      then get them to do a boring repetitive task for three minutes so they forget about the main task…

      then they come back to the main task, and they solve it better than the control group that is given that three minutes to consciously focus on the problem.

  17. Sometimes your conscious just needs to rest and let your unconscious takes over. It is much healthier on your mind and indirectly your body.

  18. Catching up on these after a few weeks…
    This reminded me of Tor Nørretranders’ book, ‘The User Illusion’, which I enjoyed reading some decades back. Glancing again at it now, the chapter called ‘The Bandwidth of Consciousness’ seems pertinent.
    It does seem obvious – and that is dangerous, of course – that most of our thinking is below conscious awareness.
    I was also reminded of my research dissertation way back in 1974: ‘The Unconscious Abstraction of Grammatical Rules’ The subjects could classify accurately strings of nonsense syllables constructed by generative rules, but were unable to articulate why they could do so.
    Incidentally, the epigraph to the Nørretranders book is a quote from James Clerk Maxwell:
    ‘What is done by what is called myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.’

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