The concept of consciousness: a truly absorbing idea. For decades we have assumed that conscious processes operated by the brain existed on levels inaccessible to the subconscious – and vice versa. New studies, however, have shown that the very definition of consciousness as we know it may be challenged. Consciousness, as it turns out, may only be a kind of front for subconsciousness.
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A few quick definitions: the human consciousness refers to the mental state of awareness: an understanding of processes, circumstances and experiences outside of the mind itself. Subconsciousness refers to the part of the mind’s processes that are not currently in focal awareness.
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Our conscious awareness fluctuates all the time, but we assumed with a fair level of certainty that it was fairly separate from our subconscious. This was due to studies which demonstrated levels of conscious thought using the time-tested Reflexive Imagery Task, which gives participants objects and tells them not to think of the names of those objects. This is like asking a dieter not to think about chocolate: what you’re told not to do, you’re more likely to do. The Reflexive Imagery Task is always applied to automatic tasks like word-object association; it has been assumed, therefore, that more complex thinking cannot occur on a subconscious level, and more complex processes such as calculation must happen consciously.
A recent study has flipped this idea on its head. The study asked participants to learn how to perform a simple mental task called Pig Latin. Pig Latin is a language game many American kids learn wherein you take the first letter or syllable of a word, move it to the end of the word and follow it with “ay”. So the word “cow”, for example, becomes “ow-cay”. Participants in the study were taught Pig Latin. Then they were shown a series of words and told not to rearrange the letters consciously into Pig Latin. If the prevailing assumptions were true, they should have followed the instructions with ease.
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The participants were told, however, to press a button if they noticed that they were rearranging the letters automatically. Doing so would suggest that this process was being activated by the subconscious. And 43% of participants rearranged the words without thinking about it.
Lead researcher Ezekiel Morsella, a pioneer in this new theory, stated that “our study reveals that unintentional, unconscious processes can be more sophisticated than what has been thought before.” As it turns out, our conscious minds might just be the window through which our subconscious processes function, and therefore considerably less active than we previously thought.
Mind = blown.