The unconsciousness rules our lives

When my girlfriend asks me if I had vegetables for dinner, my usual answer would be “no, but I had fruits”, upon hearing this she always teases me that I cannot differentiate fruits from vegetables. Well, yes and no – of course I can distinguish them in my conscious mind; but in my unconscious mind, I can’t.  That is, although I know that they are different, deep under my consciousness my animal instinct always categorize food as either meat or nonmeat – thus tricking me into treating fruits and vegetables as interchangeable.

Phenomena like this seem trivial but they happen again and again in our daily life, often without being noticed. Psychologists think our brain is a two-tier system that works like two entire railway systems. These two generally operates independently of each other but they are also connected at various points. The more fundamental tier is our unconscious mind, which deals with our basic animal functions like sensing and safely responding to the external world; on top of the unconscious lies the consciousness, which deals with our rational thoughts and set us apart from other animals. In our daily life it is actually the unconscious that processes more information. Scientists estimate that the human sensory system sends to the brain about eleven million bits of information per second, while we can only handle somewhere between 16 and 50 bits per second. The rest go unnoticed and are processed by the unconscious to produce a much simpler abstraction of information so that our conscious mind is not overwhelmed.

As a result of this two-tier brain system, when something happens, the reality we perceive is not really what we have sensed, but rather what the sensory system detects plus what we think happened. Here’s the catch. Our unconscious mind may trick our conscious mind into thinking about what may have never happened. For example, when listeners in one study hears “it was found that the *eel was on the axle”, where the asterisk stands for a cough/noise covering the sound, listeners thinks they hear “wheel”. If “axle” is changed into “table” they hear “meal”; and with “orange” as the last word listeners hear “peal”. So in a way our brain “invents” reality rather than “senses” it.

This also happens to our memory system. Even though sometimes we think we remember things, the memories may not be accurate. There has been an example of a victim remembering the wrong person as the rapist, even though she saw the rapist’s face under good light condition. She committed the mistake the first time when the police asked her to identify the rapist from several potential criminals and she chose the one that best matched the rapist from her memory. And after that she kept reinforcing the idea that the one she had identified was really the criminal. The problem is that the real criminal never appeared in the lineups, thus resulting her to remember what she wants to believe in – the decision she made when forced (by herself) to identify someone as the criminal.

However, our unconsciousness is not all that bad. It helps us to tell if a person is happy or angry without thinking about it. It also helps us to be social. When we communicate, we always give away nonverbal cues, and we are quite good at deciphering these hints. For example, even if we mute the sound and cover the subtitles when watching a movie, we will still be able to get a relatively accurate clue about what is really going on. Moreover, animals are even better at reading our nonverbal cues. That is probably why sometimes we think our pets actually understand our words – in reality they don’t, but they are good (in particular dogs are better than us) at understand our social signals like emotions.

The unconscious also helps us categorizing things, keeps us in faith of groups we belong to and share the group’s compassion in the face of enemies. Furthermore, it keeps us confident about ourselves. In fact we are often overly confident and overestimate ourselves. Our desire of feeling good about ourselves leads us to have unconsciously biased behaviors. For example, researchers found that in the US people with the same surname are more likely to get married. That is, Browns are more likely to marry Browns; and Smiths are more likely to marry Smiths. The researchers explained that even something as seemingly meaningless as our names could make us feel good and form an opinion in favor of ourselves. This may also explain why in Apple many senior managers have Steve as their first names; and in Amazon many Jeffs hold senior positions.

Another study show that 94% of college professors think their work is above average. Obviously at least 44, or almost half of them overestimate themselves. This human character is a blessing rather than a flaw, since evolution designed the human brain not to accurately understand itself but to help us survive. Feeling good helps our ancestors to endure hunger, coldness and diseases. Even today, this still works. Take the placebo effect for example, patients that are given sugar pills but are told the pills are effective to treat their diseases feel significantly better – sugar pills with a different label actually cures or alleviate pains. They do not in any way alleviate pains in the physical level, but rather, it is our unconsciousness that tricks and treats us.

As we evolve along the long history, our animal instincts have been kept or even further developed while our rational thinking progresses. The conscious part is what tells us apart from animals. However, animals can survive with little or without much consciousness; while no animals can survive without unconsciousness, neither can humans. Understanding the unconsciousness means more than just survival, but also means better coordination with the conscious, better understanding of ourselves as humans, and really following our hearts.

The book Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behavior is quite fascinating. It provides an extensive range of psychological experiments to support the idea, and explains theories in a great sense of humor. Below are some excerpts and notes from the book.

When the author tries to prove to his mother that a tortoise is primitive by waving his hands to it and it ignores him, his mother argues: “Your kids ignore you, and you don’t call them primitive creatures.”

Smiths are more likely to marry Smiths: people have a basic desire to feel good about themselves, and therefore we have a tendency to be unconsciously biased in favor of traits similar to our own, even such seemingly meaningless traits as our names.

The Pepsi paradox: Pepsi tastes better than Coke in blind tests; while people still prefer Coke when they have a choice. Wine tastes better with higher price labels. Stockings with a particular scent sells better. Detergent with yellow and blue box is more effective. Many of our basic assumptions about ourselves and the society are false.

The human sensory system sends the brain about eleven million bits of information per second, while we can only handle between sixteen and fifty bits per second.

The human mental system is a two-tier system comprised of an unconscious tier and a conscious tier. The unconscious tier is more fundamental. It developed early our evolution, to deal with basic necessities of function and survival, sensing and responding to the external world. Most nonhuman species can survive with little or no conscious thought, but no animal can exist without unconsciousness. Scientists estimate that we are conscious of only about 5% of our cognitive function, the other 95% goes beyond our awareness.

If a animation is shown in front of one eye and a static picture is shown in front of the other, you will only be aware of the animation, even if the static picture is pornographic (but you will probably make a correct guess if you’re forced to). PS. in academia they sometimes take “highly arousing erotic images” from the International Affective Picture System, which contains a range of pictures from sexually explicit material to mutilated bodies to pleasant images of children and wildlife.

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