National Hypnotherapy Society | Conscious, Subconscious and…

Have you ever been on a regular commute to work, only to arrive with no memory of the journey? Perhaps you have absent-mindedly munched on your popcorn when watching a movie and suddenly it’s all gone. Or maybe, a song pops up on the radio and you are suddenly flooded with memories long forgotten. Our brains are incredibly complex and amazing, so skilled at keeping us alive that we often don’t even notice what it is doing in the background as we go about our daily lives.

There is so much about ourselves that we do not pay attention to or know about, and the same can be said for the others around us too. It can be easy and comforting to trust in our gut feelings about someone or something, but as we evolve as a society, we also need to take the time to understand the underpinning forces that drive our thoughts, perceptions, and judgements. If we gain a better understanding of ourselves, we can gain more control over the decisions we make and a greater understanding of what motivates us to act in certain ways.

To gain a better understanding of how our minds work, psychologists and theorists have created metaphorical models of how our minds work, splitting them into three separate layers. Contrary to what it sounds like, these layers do not exist as specific brain structures, they exist more as a concept to allow us to categorise different processes that occur within our experience of life as we know it. Presently, our minds have been split into three models.

  • Consciousness: our thoughts, actions, and awareness.
  • Subconscious: automatic actions and reactions that aren’t noticed without focused attention.
  • Unconscious: the deep recesses of our past and memories.

Our conscious mind

This is the part of ourselves that we are all familiar with and have control over. We use this part of our mind to acknowledge feelings, make decisions, and interpret the input that our body and surroundings are giving us. It is the part of our mind that will judge an acquaintance as a friend or foe and will decide whether or not they like a new food, or which show or film they’d like to watch that evening when relaxing. For those of us with an internal dialogue, it is the voice that accompanies our day-to-day existence (think J.D. from Scrubs but in your own voice). It is the decision you make to have a lazy Sunday or go for a walk, to cook food from home or order a pizza. Your conscious mind is your constant companion, it is you that is sat reading this blog right now who was likely either thinking about an annoying goofy doctor or wondering what the show Scrubs is about.

Our subconscious mind

This is the part of our mind that is not currently in focal awareness. This secondary system regulates everything in our daily lives and is a barrier that our mind puts up to stop us from becoming overwhelmed by the continuous barrage of information through our senses as we interact with the world. This could be the sensation of clothes on our skin, the position of our tongue resting in our mouths, or the sight of the bridge of our nose in the centre of our vision. It could be the movement of our bodies as we walk, changing gears as we drive along a familiar route or the way that we brush our teeth. This protective barrier allows us to focus our awareness on higher cognition and decision making without getting tangled in the constant stream of sensory input. When we learn new skills, our conscious mind is engaged and the skill can be taxing to learn and perfect. However, with time, practised skills become automatic skills and take up less of our executive function, moving from our conscious mind to our subconscious mind.

Our unconscious mind

While many people use the terms subconscious and unconscious interchangeably, these are two distinct models of our minds. The unconscious mind is a fully automatic function and, unlike our subconscious mind, is not available for introspection or analysis. This part of our mind is where we hold our initial impressions, base instincts and first experiences, our memories, and the connections we hold between ourselves and the world around us. We get jumpier walking through a forest at night than during the day. We avoid certain foods and textures that we deem unpleasant. We know when we become attracted to someone or a type of person but have little choice in what sets off that initial spark.

Understanding ourselves better

Learning about our human psyche is an important part of the human experience and not just something for professionals. By paying more attention to the different parts of your mind, you may begin to better understand the driving forces behind your decision making. If you’re itching for a takeaway instead of a home-cooked meal, your may be tired and seeking a reward for a challenging day. You may shy away from the neighbour’s dog not because you dislike it, but instead because you were frightened by one as a child. You may be quick to judge an acquaintance or colleague when they express an interest in a subject that you dislike or act coldly to someone that you clashed with in the past. Not only is this happening to you, but this is happening to everyone around you.

As our society is beginning to open its arms to diversity, we could all benefit from identifying gut reactions and understanding where they come from. Everyone has their own unique experience of the world and will see things in a light that is different to your own. Increased awareness and introspection are the first lines of defence against discrimination and prejudice within our society, and that journey starts with you.