Is there an unconscious mind?

by Steve Baxter in Hypnosis Forum · · 59 Replies · View last reply Respond
Steve Baxter
Steve Baxter

When I first studied hypnotherapy I was introduced to the idea that I had an unconscious (or subconscious) mind which had a defined role, characteristics and functioned in a way I was not consciously aware of.
The unconscious was credited with having a ‘prime directive’ to keep me safe, alive and well and a list of characteristics – such as – takes everything literally and personally, does not understand negatives (you can’t do a don’t), runs your memory and emotions, is intuitive and non-analytic, it has a model of your body in perfect health and can be engaged to overcome illness, can repress traumatic memories and re-present them when it thinks I am better able to cope with them.
The essential point was that like a captain of a ship the conscious mind (that analytical voice in your head, your self-talk) was being listened to by your unconscious which took your instructions and acted on them. Some said that actually all emotion, behaviour came from your unconscious and the stuff going on consciously was merely rationalisation. Some noted hypnotherapists put the source of all our issues we sought therapy for down to a lack of rapport between our conscious and subconscious minds.
It was like I had just discovered the other 95% of my brain and hypnosis and suggestion was the way to access and control it. Hypnotherapy was so easy – all you had to do is use hypnosis to open the door to the unconscious and engage it in its own repair. Tell it metaphorical stories or directly question it, perhaps using ideomotor responses to get our answers. I am obviously being simplistic here but I was taught hypnotherapy and received a recognised qualification and membership of a professional body after just two days of training.
Now this is all a long way from my current belief – which is simply that the unconscious is a model to describe that there is brain activity that I am not consciously aware of. I don’t believe that there is some inner, powerful second kind of mind hidden behind a conscious/unconscious barrier, that can be engaged using hypnosis to resolve a range of challenges. Which is a shame.  

Adam Eason Administrator
Adam Eason

Ok, first up, I'll introduce myself to this thread with a couple of articles I have written on the subject: 

Is there such a thing as the unconscious mind

Should we trust the unconscious mind

I think both of those articles should get the juices flowing for this thread. 

I would reiterate a couple of things here too... I wrote a book in 2004 that used the model of the unconscious mind as a means of explaining hypnosis. Whilst I do not use that model today, I do still find it useful at times as a metaphor for explaining hypnosis, whilst suggesting that there is no evidence of this (model) being the absolute truth. 

I think there has been a big shift in recent years with regards to this thought, so I look forward to this thread developing. 

Dave Carrick
Dave Carrick

It's probably logical that there isn't a separate brain mass called the subconscious, but there are still parts that can't easily be accessed until they come into play to support a conscious decision, such as carry out a skilled task when 'muscle memory' starts working. Conscious thought here only interferes with the process as it's too slow:

For ex. Ever been running down some stairs 2 at a time, then halfway down start to think about how your feet know exactly where to land without consciously directing them? I did & nearly fell down the rest.. (I wouldn't advise trying that one)

 

 

Bob Collier
Bob Collier

I used the iceberg model of "the mind" in my book because it's simple to understand for my target market. However, although I do refer to the "conscious mind" and the "unconscious mind", I differentiate between the two with the terms "intellect" and "biology" because that's how my thinking has been going for some time. Our "biology" runs our lives and our "intellect" creates intention for the future from an awareness of what we're experiencing in the present. My definition of "the conscious mind" is essentially that it's an effect of our physical senses interacting with our physical environment. For me, that's why our "conscious mind" is logical, rational and analytical - it's an experience of sensory data received from a manifestation of the laws of physics - external reality - and our neurological and other internal responses to that data, which at least initially will tend to be directly relevant to the external reality. "Unconscious mind" is everything else up to and including the essential life processes that are impossible for us to ever sense. 

Steve Baxter
Steve Baxter

@Dave yes indeed - also essential for musicians and many sportspeople - which causes all sorts of issues if they are anxious and start to get consciously involved in normally unconscious activities.

Are you suggesting that the unconscious part is likened to a recording machine able to play back previously learnt emotions, behaviours, movements - this I find interesting. It is the idea that the unconscious mind is some kind off all knowing wise inner self I struggle with.

@Bob - You describe the conscious mind as 'logical, rational and analytical' do you see the unconsious as lacking these characteristics or perhaps having different characteristics? Or is it simply the lower level functions of the mind responsible for running the body and doesn't have any cognitive ability?

 

 

Steve Baxter
Steve Baxter

Some of Bob's perspective reminded me of the NLP Communication model - which broadly says that we are reliant on our five senses (VAKOG) to experience reality and then this is subjected to unconscious filtering - generalisation, deletion, distortion to help us make the stream of 'data' manageable. We then subject this to our rules, beliefs, values, world view on order to make sense of it all - or creating our subject experience to use the NLP speak.

So with phobics - for me this is clearly an unconscious processing of an external stimulus - an arachnophobe uncovering a spider whist gardening has an immediate reaction without any inner conscious cognitions going on. So not conscious, rational or analytics seems to support Bobs point.
 

Adam Eason Administrator
Adam Eason

Doing things on autopilot from time to time - how does that prove that we have an unconscious mind exactly? 

What I am keen to dispel in professional circles is this rather 'schizophrenic' notion that we have two distinct minds, with their own characteristics - there is simply no evidence to suggest this is the truth. I understand people using the notion to help clients understand - but I wouldn't want to tell my clients that such a thing was the truth. 

You all might be interested in reading something esle I wrote about people referring to the unconscious mind and their 'gut feelings' as being some form of ultimate wisdom: http://www.adam-eason.com/2010/11/08/are-your-gut-feelings-actually-an-all-seeing-eye-a-demi-god-of-some-sort/ 

In the comments, you'll see a very interesting link and comment from Andy Smith which I think is very relevant to popular thought surrounding the notion of the unconscious mind. 

Dave Carrick
Dave Carrick

Yup. there is definitely something happening in there we're not aware of until it's needed. 

I'm coming to the conclusion it's got to be that way because our consciousness would be overwhelmed with information if all our memories were available at will. The purpose of those bits of the brain is to send it up to us when necessary. There has to be a separate search engine happening in the background so we don't have to think about it. We'd need an IQ of 10,000 to start dealing with all that while doing day to day things. 

It's probably evolved a bit like google, which as they add more & more refinements it's more likely to give you the sites you need. It doesn't mean an internet engine can think, but sometimes it seems like it can.

Not sure if emotions can be 'remembered' apart from which one was linked to which event, and how much of it..

Steve Baxter
Steve Baxter

Here is the corrected link that Adam referred to

http://www.adam-eason.com/2010/11/08/are-your-gut-feelings-actually-an-all-seeing-eye-a-demi-god-of-some-sort

To respond to Adam's point - I think you answered your own question - does not 'autopilot' imply that there is some unconscious activity and the mind is just getting on with it? I agree with needing to dispel the schizophrenic view though and think that the idea that we can contact our unconscious mind and have it sort out all sorts of issues for us is disempowering. I think there is the autopilot but it is just a lower strata of a single mind and less able or unable to be rational, intelligent, reasoning. I go back to my original point that the 'unconscious mind' is not actually a mind but a metaphor to describe that there is some low level processing that occurs without conscious awareness.

To Dave - emotions can be remembered and linked to the context or event in which they occurred - this is the essence of what NLP calls Anchors and also Phobias is it not ? Your search engine suggestion reminds me of the phenomena when you attempt to remember something, cannot, and later it just 'pops' into your head...

 

Bob Collier
Bob Collier

@Steve - To answer your questions from several days ago: "You describe the conscious mind as 'logical, rational and analytical' do you see the unconsious as lacking these characteristics or perhaps having different characteristics? Or is it simply the lower level functions of the mind responsible for running the body and doesn't have any cognitive ability?

What I imagine these days is something like this. On my laptop's hard drive, I currently have xGB of stored data. The data exists only as bits of energy and information and it's invisible to me except for a tiny percentage of available data which is visible on my computer screen at any moment of time, given recognisable form by thousands of pixels. Pixels or not, it's all bits of energy and information. What's on my computer screen and what isn't is the equivalent for me of conscious mind and unconscious mind in my self. What has form and what remains formless on my computer screen depends on the interaction of where my fingers go on the keyboard and what data is available on my hard drive. What' has form and what remains formless in my self awareness depends on the interaction of sensory data from my environment and my available memories. 

A fundamental difference between my computer and me is that, on my computer, my stored data retains its identity. When I open a file, I expect to find exactly what I saved. Data in me is organic. Memories recalled are never the same as when they became memories.

That's where my thinking is at the moment anyway..  

Dave Carrick
Dave Carrick

After reading Bobs post it reminded me I've got a question that might be worth starting another thread about- do anchors work in reverse?

As for the unconscious mind thing it seems to have ground to a halt a bit. There must be one that does more than run the body or we wouldn't be able to drive while thinking about something else, and not just the motor (humour intentional) skills involved, I'm talking about when you find yourself at home without remembering taking the route. That ability can work against you as well when you didn't want to go home but forgot to switch conscious brain on.

Adam Eason Administrator
Adam Eason

OPk, I think I have my own points repeatedly in the blog entries I have referred to, but I'll go in another direction here too. 

Dave and anyone else supporting similar thoughts regarding the unconscious mind. 

Many cognitive scientists say today, what many call and refer to as “the conscious mind” is not a part of the mind but is actually an activity performed by the brain – for example, the processes of remembering, thinking, imagining, perceiving etc. These are activities that our brain does. 

Much brain activity and functioning, by their nature and for good reason, are not in a form that can be consciously represented. Some scientists refer to the “cognitive unconscious” so for example, when reading, we seemingly recognise the words instantaneously; the processing that occurs between the act of looking at a word and recognising it is always at an unconscious level – indeed we cannot help but read the word.

Those thoughts, memories and skills, abilities to do so, do not actually exist somewhere in a place called “the unconscious mind” do they? Rather the brain is simply not engaged in those activities at the time in question.

The brain allocates which activities are to be expressed in consciousness due to what is important at any given time. We need to be aware of relevant stimuli but things that are currently irrelevant are not immediately registered at a conscious level.

The example of concentrating on a conversation at a noisy party, ignoring other sounds, but being immediately aware if someone else says our name – we have the facility to inhibit the conscious expression of ativity that is threatening or emotionally disturbing. It is a process of the brain, not necessarily proof that we have something called an “unconscious mind.”

Likewise, doing anything on autopilot - how does that prove that we have something called an "unconscious mind"? It simply means that we engage in an activity without having a distinct conscious awareness or recollection of it, doesn't it? How is that evidence of there being such a thing as a separate, all wise, all seeing, higher power called "the unconscious mind" - we have one brain that engages in activities, and that is what modern cognitive science tends to favour. 
 

Dave Carrick
Dave Carrick

That sounds feasible & it's starting to make more sense to me now. Ties in with my last post but one where I said we wouldn't be able to deal with all the information at once, externally & internally. it has to be that way or our heads would explode.

Dave Carrick
Dave Carrick

Update. I've just had an interesting insight into this with one of my volunteers.

If during a session I need to refer to conscious or unconscious a lot then I say somthing like 'when I say (name)1, I mean the conscious part of (name), (name)2 is the unconscious part of (name), & (name) is all of (name)'

So I did this with a guy today, and when he came out he mentioned that when I said Jim2, he felt something in the back of his head, when he heard me say Jim1, it happened near the front.

He's pretty in tune with his own mind but this goes some way to showing that there are definite areas of the physical brain involved here. Anyone else had a similar thing with clients?

Adam Eason Administrator
Adam Eason

Dave, I appreciate your tenacity with this subject matter and despite being irritated with your flagrant flauting of the rules for the counting thread, I also appreciate your continued input with this line of enquiry. ;-)

Sadly, I do not think that one single subjective report of a therapist giving one single subjective report of a client is really likely to have the academics reprint the neuroscience text books. That said, I have had similar accounts given to me by clients and students in the past, especially when they are particularly looking for such. 

Reality is that hypnosis has been studied scientifically and that the results don’t make great reading for many hypnotherapists. Especially those who desperately want their to be a special state of hypnosis and want to adhere to the unconscious mind model. 

The majority of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists dispute the concept of dualism, that of the mind being distinct to the brain. No centre of consciousness, no centre of decision making. This breaks the Ericksonian and Elmanesque models in particular. 

Neuroscientists tend to accept that we are biological computers and, because of that, we are deterministic and lack free will. Interestingly, conscious awareness lags behind unconscious decision making by a significant period of time. Dualism is a metaphor and probably serves the purpose of suggesting dissociation.

With regards to my statements about free will, watch this;
http://youtu.be/N6S9OidmNZM 

And if you really want to get into the science of what I am talking about here, go and read an article written by my good friend Kev Sheldrake (Head Hacking) at my other friend Josh Houghton's website: 
http://www.whatsonmybrain.com/head-hacking-free-your-mind-part-1-popular-models-of-hypnosis/ 

 

Dave Carrick
Dave Carrick

First one no surprise, tho it does seem a long time between unconscious & conscious decision. Shame they didn't explore it more than just by 'random' button pushing.

I'll read the article & get back about that.

Does it matter that the 'science' doesn't fully support hypnosis, the fact is it works. I've seen almost miraculous things just in the 5 months on the course so far, for ex reduced a snake phobia from severe to nothing in a single sess with another volunteer yesterday. That's what was supposed to happen but it still blew both of us away.

And I am tenacious, how does anyone get good if they're not, and I don't intend to be average. There are cowboys in every profession & I sure ain't gonna be one of em no sirree  :-)

Me I still don't fully experience it as I should, but I can guide people into a deep state so I'm happy for now, I'll get there myself one day.