art by Alex Grey
The concept of nonconscious processing is not exactly new, Sigmund Freud introduced his model of the human mind in the essay “The unconscious” published in 1915. Yet, Freud’s view was that the principal purpose of unconscious and subconscious layers is storing the information rather than information acquisition and processing. Apparently, Freud underestimated nonconscious mind. According to a large body of psychological and neuropsychological research conducted in the past two decades (composed of data collected by 100+ independent researchers all over the world), what happens in our conscious minds is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg; our conscious thinking, perceiving, and learning accounts for only a small fraction of our total mental activity, with the rest being entirely nonconscious. This idea was first presented 35 years ago in “Cognitive Psychology and Information Processing” book by Roy Lachman, Janet Lachman, and Earl Butterfield:
“Most of what we do goes on unconsciously. It is the exception, not the rule, when thinking is conscious, but by its very nature [i.e., because we cannot experience anything else], conscious thought seems the only sort. It is not the only sort; it is the minority.” (page 207)
Our minds, as it turns out, really do function like the computers of the body; but the role of conscious mind is much more modest than thought before. It is certainly not a central processor (or CPU) but rather a set of peripheral devices, presenting an interface that interacts with the outside world. The actual bulk of the processing occurs in the nonconscious mind, which is the real CPU of our body. Our minds are also similarly proficient at multitasking; while we are busy experiencing a portion of what is going on around us, our minds are busy absorbing much of the rest of what is present in our environment.
Our conscious minds work much more slowly than our nonconscious minds, and are overall less adept at processing information, less efficient at the task. The nonconscious mind therefore can be said to be more intelligent than the conscious mind.
Because the nonconscious mind is responsible for the bulk of our mental processing, it can also be said to be responsible for the development of a large part of our personality, tastes, talents, and so on. It determines, in essence, how we function as beings.
The nonconscious mind is the reason we are capable of having—and understanding—so many “unspoken rules” when it comes to social interaction. One excellent example of this is language; grammatical, semantic (or syntactic) rules, idiomatic conventions, innumerable idiosyncrasies and specific linguistic customs that arise from one’s local environment make up a large portion of what we must know in order to communicate effectively with those around us. If all such information had to be processed by the conscious mind, simple conversation would take hours, even days, to form. Our nonconscious learning of these facets of language are as necessary as they are innate.
One of the main reasons so many find grammar such a challenge is not that they don’t know it, but that they don’t know why they know it or how, so cannot explain why they place commas where they do, other than that it “sounds better” that way. And, when taught the rules of such consciously, they are often easily forgotten, as they do not need to be known in order to communicate effectively with most people.
The above is just one small example of the role nonconscious knowledge structures play in our everyday lives; indeed, these structures underlie nearly every thought and action, and can be seen as the underpinning for everything produced by the conscious mind. As such, the idea of the subconscious as some mysterious land mostly accessed when we sleep or fall into another sort of trance state is inherently flawed; the nonconscious mind is active every waking moment of our lives, and we would be more or less incapable of understanding the world around us without it. Generally speaking, each perception we have, each conclusion we come to, relies on the processing of hundreds of thousands of pieces of nonconscious information.
We are unable to consciously access all this information for a reason—it would get so completely overwhelming that we would be distracted past the point of functioning (or at least, functioning quickly), something which would have gone very counter to our survival in the wild, which often wholly depended on making split-second life-saving decisions.
It is also theorized that mental illness and strong emotional conflicts likely arise when the information in the nonconscious mind and that in the conscious mind does not entirely line up, when our logic and beliefs tell us one thing, but our “instincts” tell us other. For example, a person experiencing a panic instinct will look for a reason to consciously explain it (i.e., “I’m having heart attack!”), which then makes the panic worse. This process, repeated, lies behind the development of a panic disorder.
The nonconscious mind is thought to be composed only of what it has absorbed from the external environment, and to be responsible for the following processes:
- nonconscious learning and the development of personality traits;
- the nonconscious influence that our nonconscious learning has on our judgments, decisions, and emotions (both feelings and reactions); and
- the various organizations and reorganizations that occur spontaneously in nonconscious knowledge systems.
As point three suggests, our nonconscious knowledge systems are far from rigid; they constantly change, and we change with them, leading to what we interpret as the growth and alteration of the personality. Generally, these changes can be seen as a computer re-ordering itself to become more and more efficient in its processing of the external environment, but in some circumstances, the same processes may lead to the state of maladaptation that we refer to as mental illness.
About Author: Dr. Robert Williams is a psychology researcher and lecturer. He holds PhD in Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin and is a member of the American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA).