Do you remember what it took to overcome the overwhelm felt when you were learning to ride a bicycle?
Can you count the number of repetitions necessary to perform a flawless dance?
Have you ever tried to master a new musical instrument?
Most likely, firsts attempts to synchronise a new set of complex actions will always be very hard. Once we become more skilled, these movements start to require less conscious awareness until everything begins to flow naturally.
Have you ever wondered what type of brain processes guide these automatic movements? If the answer is yes, then you have already confronted one of the most powerful inner forces which drives human behaviour – the subconscious mind.
Subconscious Mind: Where Does It Hide?
It’s not uncommon to hear about conscious and unconscious types of actions when scientists talk about the brain. As a result, most of us are familiar with the idea that our behaviour is less rational than we believe it to be. Whether we like it or not, our ability to control thoughts, synchronize movements, or experience emotions depends on the depth of information processing.
The idea of deeper levels of information processing was developed and extensively studied by famous Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) who introduced the 3 level mind model. According to his model, mind could be divided into following levels:
- Conscious – defines all thoughts and actions within our awareness. For example, the beauty and pleasance of the smell of a red tulip
- Subconscious – defines all reactions and automatic actions we can become aware of if we think about them. For example, our ability to drive a car: once we get skilled we stop thinking which gears to use, which pedals to press, or which mirror to look at, yet can always become aware of what was done once we think about it.
- Unconscious – defines all past events and memories, inaccessible to us no matter how hard we try remember to bring things up. For example, first word we learned to say, or how it felt to be able to walk on our own.
Scientific Detection of the Subconscious Mind
Up to this day, the ability to explain how interaction of different levels of thoughts influences our behaviour remains one of the most compelling challenges in psychology and neuroscience.
In order to untangle how one level of thought influences the other, scientists must become able to detect different depths of mind. No doubt, that’s not an easy task even for the most experienced psychologists! Quite often, the levels of information processing could be captured using priming paradigms. For example, a recent psychological study showed how irrelevant cues shape learning and suggested that the effect of conscious, subconscious, and unconscious thoughts can be modelled varying presentation time of emotional faces.
In this experiment, participants were presented with a set of pictures of human faces and were asked to determine whether facial expression in a previous picture mimicked the same emotion. Interestingly, results showed that people were able to correctly recognise the difference between facial expressions if pictures were displayed for at least 0.047s. Once the duration of pictures was decreased to 0.027s – 0.033s, the rate of correct responses dropped by approximately a half. In contrast, respondents became unable to discriminate facial expressions if the duration of the stimulus was decreased even more – to 0.020s.
This way, research demonstrated clear differentiation of conscious and unconscious influence of thoughts: people were only able to give error free answers if the picture could reach the level of conscious awareness. More surprisingly, duration of pictures, shown for as long as 0.027s – 0.033s, couldn’t be sufficient for stimulus verbalisation at the level of conscious awareness, yet had measurable influence on behaviour. Specifically, the rate of correct responses decreased just by half, meaning that participants were still partially able to provide with correct responses and indicated the presence of subconscious mind.
Activation of Brain Regions
You might get curious whether the brain activation differs when we experience an influence of subconscious versus conscious mind. You might want to know why conscious thoughts are often processed slower than unconscious thoughts. Or might question whether scientists can define exact processing pathways of such tiny subtle concepts as subconscious thought.
Until recently, it was impossible to capture where in the brain these thought processes occur or visualise specific brain activation regions. However, the rise of brain imaging methods allowed researchers to study thought processing pathways by providing an opportunity to picture changes in the neuroanatomy of a brain.
Today, brain imaging research has indeed supported Freud’s model of mind and suggested that the depth of thought depends on its processing pathway. In particular, studies (study1,study2) showed that the pathways of conscious and unconscious thoughts can be clearly differentiated. In contrast, the pathway of subconscious mind is much difficult to define. In fact, subconscious thoughts do not seem to have their own processing pathway. Rather, they share the bits of both – conscious and unconscious – routes of information processing.
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Watanabe, N., & Haruno, M. (2015). Effects of subconscious and conscious emotions on human cue-reward association learning. Scientific reports, 5.