What is the Unconcious Mind?
The unconscious mind, also referred to as the subconscious, is the database of our lives. Its purpose is to pay attention below consciousness for ques to respond. Responses include protection, procreation opportunities, and ways to be more efficient by automating repetitive tasks like walking, recognizing someone, or driving. This explains why humans are often defensive, seeking interludes, and why we like to multi-task. This has worked for millennial. Most people did not need a professional therapist because they consulted family members, a teacher, clergy, and occasionally a counselor. Therapists were seen as those one went to with a “mental disorder,” not stress, physical pain, or illness. Short of a diagnosed mental disorder, most people have coped well with the ups and downs of life. This also explains why now, people don’t want to go to a therapist because of this stigma, if you go to one, you’re labeled as “crazy, probably triggering a K-8 experience where less-abled students were socially rejected.
In our modern world, something has radically changed. People are not coping anymore. Why? Human consciousness was not configured to be constantly bombarded by emotions, nor to juggle many activities simultaneously or be impacted by continual traumas, like Covid-19, extreme weather events, and news stories on mass shootings, political rivalries, or other disasters. The unconscious mind was not designed to be on all the time across multiple issues often conflicting, disrupting efficiency, one of the core competencies of the unconscious! Recent research supports this idea that understanding and experience are combined in a way that allows us to figure things out, i.e. it is not just a mental activity (Gray, 1999; Unkelbach & Greifeneder, 2013).
The cause of this perpetual state of cognitive dissonance is that humans are not good at change and in fact, dislike it. Computer software gets updates. So does a human, through experience, changing perceptions, and core issues, but only after learning deeply enough through trust, emotion, and repetition.
Life is so much easier when one doesn’t have to think about how to do something that has been done so many times before. It can just happen automatically, from rote memory. It’s like our heart doesn’t need to be told to beat and neither do we need to tell our body to stand, walk, or run. As a result, the unconscious mind takes it over so our conscious mind can focus on more important matters.
What shapes our minds? Parents, caregivers, educators, media companies (advertisements), ministers, and other “trusted” leaders. Trust is the common denominator of these influencers. In addition, to trust, emotion is also a requirement to encode perceptions and core beliefs. While we don’t typically view emotion as a “sense” it performs like one, eliciting data when experienced (Ford & Gross, 2018). The final requirement is repetition. It’s disconcerting that it’s this easy to “get programmed.” You can see why it’s so easy to lose touch with who you really are. Before you are even on your own, you are set up to live a life based upon where you grew up, how you grew up, who taught you, who cared for you, and what your economic condition was.
In childhood, the unconscious is only equipped with basic fight or flight responses and genetic memories to keep the host safe. A great deal of its activity is automatic probably because it’s part of the autonomic system (Kiefer, 2007).
As we develop and through experience, we develop enhanced protective measures, learn to be efficient as we master tasks, while becoming aware of our sexual drive. Here forward we won’t include a discussion on the latter.
Let’s walk through an encoding experience.
Baby is on a change table with diaper ready to be removed when mom remembers she forgot to grab the new wipes she just bought. She steps out and upon her return and of course horror, the baby is now upside down in the waste basket, not crying. Mom quickly grabs the child, completely freaked out, and cuddles the baby while checking for injuries. The baby now cries because mom is very upset, terrified she’d hurt her child.
So, what is this baby’s perception of this experience? The baby has no words, only the feeling of falling, landing on head, and possibly suffocating in a basket for 30 seconds, along with mom’s reaction of terror. Here is the most probable encoding, remembering it takes three elements, trust, emotion, and repetition.
Mom is trusted, check. Mom is emoting, check. Repetition? Not yet but later in life as a similar event occurs, this memory will be triggered, and the new event will join this event and reinforce its existence.
The encoding will include the event, which is falling, landing upside down, and hitting head. Emotion is terror and the perception is most probably, “I’m going to get hurt, if I fall,” or “I’m going to die, if I fall,” since mom is projecting fear that her child’s neck might be broken. While the child does not have language to formulate an actual perception or core issue, the message is clear, namely falling feeling is deadly and precautions to falling should be top of mind.
A few years later a trip to the local County Fair offers a ride that the child is excited to get on! Mom is at the child’s side, and it starts up. As soon as the child feels the “falling feeling,” the child freaks out and wants to get off. Mom gets upset, terrified, because her child is trying to wriggle out of the seat to get off immediately. Reinforcement occurs in this situation only this time, there are words attached to the event, both the past and the present. Note, that experiences encoded with emotion, perception, and core belief, are not organized by date or time, but only by the elements mentioned (Pally, 2007; Erskine, 2010). So, this time the words are clear, “I’m going to die, if I fall.” This belief is not serving the child and won’t in the future, if there is turbulence during flight, pointing skis down a hill or driving near the edge of a road or hiking path. Holding this belief will cause some debilitation and needs modification to something like, “I’m safe, even if I fall.”
As a final note on this, reinforcement occurs over and over again each time we repeat a similar event that is encoded, adding information to the reason why one must avoid the experience at all costs. So, even thinking about going on a plane will be affected, knowing that turbulence could cause the plane to fall, with them in it, and death will be the end result. What’s so difficult about identifying and changing these beliefs is that the original event itself does not become conscious, only the feeling of terror when faced with a similar event. This is why, Adaptive Therapy is about paying attention to the feelings that bubble up, the inner voice speaking, to give hints about the programming that is self-limiting and often, self-harming.
Perceptions are an assessment of data to compare, corelate, and predict situations at the unconscious level to avoid disturbing conscious activity. An example of this is one we experience often. Remember the last time we went to pick up a grocery bag or step down a step expecting a certain amount of weight or force and to our surprise it’s not accurate. This is because our body is operating, moving based upon an assumption as a result of a perception, such as: Groceries we buy (grocery-looking bag, even if it holds feathers or multiple cans of soup) weigh an average of X and so the amount of effort to pick it up was calculated for the current experience. The surprise is the result of a deviation from the perception. The stairs dropping lower than expected could be the result of a steeper decline from an attic room and dim light that did not allow us to assess it in real-time. Perceptions are to speed reaction time for safety and efficiency.
Some predictions are faulty and can even be deadly. This author has almost 40 years of work with clients and a particular one that comes to mind is when a woman driving, turned left from a driveway to the road, stopped, looked, and then proceeded. She did not see the motorcycle she cut off that resulted in his demise. Why did this happen? This woman had never experienced seeing a motorcycle driving in the lane where she was turning so her lack of experience, a memory to recall, or a warning of danger made her move forward. This explains why experiencing different situations, learning widely, will improve perception. Teaching children they have permission to say “No” to a stranger and run is protecting children. If we don’t, there is no previous threatening experience to guard against and innocence can be robbed too early in life.
So, with risk of life and limb operating from perceptions surrounding core issues, shouldn’t we do more thinking instead? Not really. It’s not efficient and could actually lead to more harm. Thinking what to do to react to danger is slower than reacting from perception. The best sports performers are those that do not analyze their reactions, but rely on their learned ones, improving over time and repetition (Hannin et al, 2002). The same holds true in a car accident you see unfolding, a fall, or an exam you want to do well on.
In closing, on perception, I had a fall while hiking and only remember the miss-step and then became conscious again seconds later as I hit the ground, back arched to avoid the rock just under my face, hands under my chest to protect it, and a perfect plant with no skidding or rolling, that fractured my wrist. I realized immediately that I was not okay and wailed for a bit. However, amazingly, I was not killed because I was on a rock fall that had multiple rocks, I was facing uphill, so I was exposed to falling backwards and breaking my back or hitting my head. Instead, as I murmured to myself, “My daughter is going to kill me for this,” because she didn’t want me to go on the hike especially knowing I would not have cell service, I apparently pivoted to facing downhill and dove for the only safe spot between rocks about 6 foot lower than I had been standing. It was such a tight spot I landed in that I had bruises on my thigh and arms where I’d scraped them just before the plant. So, what happened? My unconscious mind took over and shut my conscious mind out from any interference knowing I was at risk of dying. This is why, I have no conscious memory of the dive; I was checked out. I can’t even recall it from my unconscious – it’s truly absent. Have I fallen before? Yes, too many times really and interesting enough, I get better at it every time. I fell in a cave once slipping on the moss-covered rock stairs. I do remember that one. My arms dropped down to my sides and my palms caught my weight. I was also aware of my body tucking up with legs in the air to avoid direct tailbone impact with the stairs. I was not hurt, but my experience was recorded as a success and would be used in the future in the event of another fall. I had also seen my friend ride her bike down a hill that was too much for her. She went over the handlebars and was badly skinned up so, I don’t go downhill on a bike fast. I also fell in the bathtub, but again while the fall was bad and I broke my cheekbone, it was the perfect fall based on physics. My cheekbone hit the toilet bowl and broke the seat. I sat back down into the shower that was starting to fill the tub because upon falling my foot had closed the drain. I did not lose consciousness; however, what if I’d hit my head where my brain is, or my nose, or my mouth? I would have probably passed out, fallen back into the tub, and drowned. Think about how fast my unconscious has to react in a millisecond to save my life! I’m grateful. My unconscious does all it can to protect me from danger. After all, I was the child on the change table that fell head-first into the waste basket. My perception about falling has gotten better over time and I consciously trust it to save me anytime I do fall which I’m not planning on doing anymore because I have learned some lessons from it – be present, slow down, breath, limit coffee, relax, enjoy life, and don’t rush through it.
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