The enormous power of the unconscious brain
“16 March 2016
If you don’t think the act of stacking and shuffling a set of cups could boggle your mind, watch the video below. In it, neuroscientist David Eagleman introduces 10-year-old Austin Naber – a world record-holding, champion cup stacker. Naber moves the cups around at a blistering pace and when Eagleman has a go at keeping up with him, the difference in skill and speed becomes immediately apparent.
“He smoked me,” Eagleman admits. “But the bigger point is that when I’m doing it, it’s my first time cup stacking. It’s all conscious for me, I’m burning a lot of energy trying to figure out the rules; how the cups balance.”
Both Eagleman and Naber had their brain activity monitored via an electroencephalogram (EEG). The difference was stark. Eagleman’s brain was firing on all cylinders, but Naber’s barely flinched – despite the pace at which he was moving.
“His brain was much more serene than mine because he had automised his behaviour,” explains Eagleman. Hours a day of practice had internalised the behaviour of cup stacking for Naber, making it far less mentally taxing. What other things can our brains get up to without conscious intervention?
The reason you practice sports over and over again is so you get really good at automising your action – David Eagleman
It’s a question that Eagleman explored in a PBS television series that aired recently on BBC4 in the UK. The non-conscious mind, he says, plays a much deeper role in our everyday decisions and relationships than we might realise.
Austin Naber is able to stack cups without his conscious mind really registering the task (Credit: Getty Images)
You’re already aware of the fact that breathing and organ functions are things we do “automatically”, but there are lots of other examples.
Take the experience of hitting a ball with a bat. It takes a ball travelling close to 100mph (160km/h) just a few hundred milliseconds to reach the hitter. It’s so fast that it’s not possible to consciously register the trajectory of the ball and one’s response to it. It’s only after hitting the ball, indeed, that we truly register what happened consciously.
“The reason you practise sports over and over again is so you get really good at automising your actions,” says Eagleman. “Thinking about them, naturally, slows you down.”
Pro baseball players only have a few milliseconds to react to a ball, far too little for their conscious mind to contend with (Credit: Alamy)
The non-conscious mind also plays a role in more sophisticated actions, whether it’s deciding on attraction to the opposite sex, completing mathematical sums or forming political views. There are even strange cases where people who are ostensibly blind can ‘see’, thanks to the non-conscious part of their minds: a phenomenon known as blindsight.
“There is debate in the field about whether consciousness even has efficacy,” says Eagleman. “By the time your conscious mind registers something, is it always just the last guy to get the news, and it doesn’t even matter what it thinks?”
Indeed, designers and advertisers have known how to control our non-conscious decisions for centuries. By using subtle cues designed to bypass conscious awareness, they can “trick” us so that we drive more safely, navigate cities in ways we do not realise and even drink more alcohol at the bar.
David Eagleman believes the conscious mind is often the “smallest bit of what’s happening in your head” (Credit: Getty Images)
Yet now that neuroscientists are exploring the influence of our non-conscious actions, they may also be able to suggest ways to improve our lives. For example, one question that Eagleman is exploring in his current research is the extent to which the conscious versus the non-conscious mind plays a role in addictions to drugs like cocaine. It’s early unpublished research, but the hope is that by training addicts to be more consciously aware of their cravings, they might gain better control over them.
Our conscious minds are really just a summary of what our brains get up to all the time
The more we probe the brain’s workings, the more we realise that our conscious minds are really just a summary of what our brains get up to all the time – without “us” having any idea. As Eagleman puts it, “The conscious you, which is the part that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning, is the smallest bit of what’s happening in your head.
‘It’s like a broom closet in the mansion of the brain.’
By Chris Baraniuk”
The metaphysical science connection in addressing mental health problems
Mental health is a complex realm of medicine. I have learned it is generally thought by mental health practitioners that it is difficult to raise with their clients whether or not they have religious or spiritual beliefs. It is supposed this area of medicine is outside their training and wider cultural experience. It is more likely than not when persons make contact with professionals for assistance with their emotional problems they are nearly all treated by practitioners as being merely depressed. This label then becomes a permanent part of a patients clinical records. However, I have formed an opinion it is not unreasonable for mental health practitioners to subtly ask patients if they have any formal beliefs in metaphysical phenomena such as a deity, ghosts, heaven and the like. I feel if such questions were asked of patients it would help mental health therapists to more rapidly determine the more pertinent nature of their patients health problem. I am suggesting here simple meditation may be the first appropriate level of corrective therapy in lieu of an anti-depressant. If readers have an interest in the possible connection between mental health and metaphysical type phenomena two articles written by Dr. Andrew Powel may assist in their investigative efforts.
Over many years researchers have identified the link between bipolar disorder and stress. This link has also been confirmed by tests done on the connection between child abuse and bipolar [cited in a separate article in this blog]. One researcher has identified the significant role of extreme anxiety in the initiation of manic episodes. This researcher also found there is a link between stress abuse and the hypothalamic-pituitary axis. In other words severe stress can detrimentally impact upon endocrine systems and associated hormonal activity. I have observed the life experiences of one person who’s life time medical condition seems to have been impacted upon this way, including with tumors. I feel some readers may not appreciate this connection.
There has been discussion in the media about child sex abuse. Once upon a time child abuse both at home and at schools was common. To a lesser degree this type of abuse is still occurring but is probably happening more so in private settings.
Recent research is beginning to demonstrate there is a close link between child abuse and bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder is serious. Bipolar derivative from child abuse is shown to be associated with lifetime substance abuse, the onset of early illness in life and long term notions of individuals thinking about committing suicide. Some do. In one study about half of bipolar sufferers diagnosed suffered severe stress and anxiety when they were children. From my research into my mild bipolar disorder I have learned many general practitioners are not aware of this connection. I have raised this issue in my blog because I feel it is in the public interest to do so. There is a wealth of material online should readers elect to investigate this matter further. Also research hypomania.