so what

so what

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Your brain: Who’s in charge here?

“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”   -- Emo Philips

Like most people raised in the tradition of western culture, Americans like to think of themselves as rational thinkers, rooted in fact. However, the science is in on this one - and we aren’t.
Not even close.

Like most people of my age I was taught that our unconscious mind took care of the autonomic functions—breathing, pumping blood, digestion, and so on.  Thinking was the province of the conscious mind.

Except it turns out that it isn’t.

Recent discoveries about the brain are leading to critical redefinitions of what the human mind is aware of, how we think about the world, what we believe about ourselves, our environment, and others — even our concepts of the past, present, and future.

Thanks to a combination of government initiatives and technological advancements, nearly everything we now know about how the brain works has been discovered within just the past two decades. It’s been a fun ride, and more than a little bit spooky.
It turns out that a set of hidden systems operate deep in our minds - hidden because they run beneath conscious awareness.  We use them every day. We use them to make decisions, choose our friends, find our way, plan our future, and find value in products, services, and ideas. These systems are powerful because we don’t even realize they influence every aspect of what we do and how we make decisions.

The amazing thing is that, thanks to new imaging technology, we can actually watch the brain thinking. The spooky part is that it nearly all our thinking is happening subconsciously – far beneath our conscious horizon. We’re making decisions all the time and we have no idea it is even happening.
Our subconscious mind filters and processes data, sets goals, judges people, evaluates products, detects danger, formulates stereotypes, sets priorities, and infers causes — all without our being aware that there even is a process taking place. It’s an elegant solution that evolved to prevent the mind from being overwhelmed by simple routine tasks.

The implications of a finding such as this are enormous. Our cognitive subconscious processes the world in milliseconds, far more quickly than our consciousness can even grasp. It’s been estimated that over 90% of our decisions are made at this intuitive level and the data the mind uses to reach those decisions resides deep in our subconscious.
The conscious process – what we classify as critical, logical thought — is, in reality, the weighting of data pre-selected by another thinking process that is effectively invisible to us, which then passes the results on to our conscious logic.

In short, it means that “facts” are what people use to validate decisions already made at a hidden subconscious level, forever beyond our conscious control.
Think about that.

Compared to our subconscious, our conscious, what we call “logical” brain, is relatively slow at taking in new information. For one thing, the sense don’t all process at the same speed.

So before the conscious brain can stitch sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing (plus all the sensory information we don’t think about, like skin temperature, pressure, and mood) into a coherent whole, it must wait for the slowest response to check in.

Basically, then, our conscious brain thinks at the Speed of Smell.

But while our conscious brain has a limited processing capacity, our unconscious mind has access to a huge database of information already processed and instantly accessible – our lifetime of experience all reduced to significant patterns, constantly updated and integrated, all encoded and stored in the memory.
With that much more brainpower at its disposal, it makes sense to leave the complex decisions to our unconscious mind, and hand over the heavily filtered and presorted results to our more limited conscious mind. It’s a bit like an adult solving a complex problem for a particularly dim child, then allowing the child to think he solved the problem by finishing the last bit of simple addition.

Well, that takes the human ego down a peg, doesn’t it?
Who is really in charge here? It seems backwards somehow – it is the reverse of everything we’ve believed for most of human history. It just happens to be true.
And yet our own experience tells us there is something to this. We all have seen - and done – things that make little logical sense in retrospect, but they just seemed natural at the time.

For example: market surveys of U.S. automobile-buying patterns reveal that more than one-third of all male car buyers deliberately stopped at the dealership when it was closed for the night  to “spy” on the cars when no one else was around.

Think about that. How much useful information can you get through a display window or a chain-link fence?  Not much, if the answer to why people choose one car over another is rooted in “facts” about handling or miles per gallon. But that’s not why we buy cars.
We don’t buy products, we buy the values that we associate with the product. In the US, cars are about freedom and mobility, status and power; expressions of who we are. Car buying is a complex problem that’s better left to our subconscious, hence the stalking.

So What?

That’s what this blog is all about--why we really do the things we do. 

We’ve been studying how people really make decisions at a subconscious level for over two decades. We’ve been swept along in the flood of new learning and applied work to make sense of it.
It’s impossible to get outside your own brain, but it is possible to make the invisible visible, bring some of these hidden systems out into the open. We’ll tell you things about how humans think that you’ve never thought of before – because you’re not supposed to need to.

We’ll tell you how to understand your subconscious in order to make better decisions within a visible process. And we’ll have some fun along the way. After all, what's more fun than human nature?
Don’t give up on your conscious brain just yet. You’re going to need it.


  1. As Laurie Anderson says, "I don't know about you, but my brain is very ... bossy."

  2. Her relevant quote for me is "I'm not usually where I think I am. It's kind of spooky."