Thursday, February 22, 2007

Success Secrets - The Unconscious Mind Part 2

Is science beginning to validate many long-felt beliefs about unconscious creativity and decision making? Consider the following anecdotes (or imagine your own):

We write written affirmations about future success, and they come true over time without detailed plans being formulated.

Detailed plans seem to get “stale” and awkward quickly, while our focused “intentions” seem to take us where we want to go more gracefully, surprisingly, and naturally.

We “sleep on” a problem and wake up with a feeling of certainty about a solution.

We’ve made lengthy lists of “pros and cons”about a decision but we don’t “feel right” about the answer.

A creative director is known for his tendency to wait patiently for a great idea, never forcing it, and brilliant, “out of the box” solutions ensue.

Mozart, in spite of the appearance of rapid composition, actually claimed he was “studying’ his composition during such activities as an evening of billiards.

Scientific progress is often associated with “happy accidents” in which unexpected findings are later perceived to be the answer to a problem under investigation, or perhaps even the door to an unexpected innovation.

In a recent post, I alluded to a fascinating PDF by psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis entitled “A Theory Of Unconscious Thought”, which detailed an exquisite set of experiments he conducted (along with others) to parse out glimpses of the unconscious mind in action. In this research he also tentatively formulated some principles that seem to characterize unconscious thought.

It appears that science is beginning to study seriously these anecdotes about unconscious thought, and is validating claims that the unconscious truly does have awesome information-processing capacity. Furthermore, apparently, in certain areas, this capacity dwarfs the capacity of the conscious mind. I find this research encouraging since the results seem to feel much more "true” or “natural” than the point of view that conscious decision making has all the answers. After all…if I had to use my conscious mind every morning, I might never make it to the coffee pot!

Here are just a few tantalizing concepts that Dijksterhuis has presented in this fascinating research paper:

  • The capacity principle: the more variables in the problem, the better-suited the decision task is for the unconscious.

  • The conscious mind likes to work from “schema” and therefore tends to pick a single, “most valid” path upon which to build further decisions,. As Dijksterjuis puts it: “During conscious thought we quickly create our own guide to further thought, while “unconscious thought uses information in a (relatively) unbiased way and slowly integrates this into an objective summary.”

  • The subconscious weights different decision factors better than conscious thought. Dijksterhuis: “Conscious thought leads people to put disproportionate weight on attributes that are accessible, plausible, and easy to verbalize”.

  • Longer periods of unconscious thought appear to produce even better solutions than short periods.

  • Unconscious thought is less focused and tends to be more “divergent” than conscious thought. This leads often to a wider range of alternatives and solutions.

  • In tasks with many variables, conscious thought seems to lead to less-satisfying solutions than unconscious thought.

All of this data is not intended to marginalize the conscious mind. Dijksterjuis’ research stresses that conscious thought is absolutely necessary for “encoding” the data from which decisions are made: you acquire as much data as you can, before submitting the decision to unconscious thought. He postulates that this "encoding" is one of the reasons that “intuition” and split-second decisions by experts is so accurate: if you have had a lifetime of experience in a field, you have, in effect , consciously “encoded” a large store of information that your unconscious has access to in weighting decisions and producing answers.

One tantalizing conclusion that Dijksterjuis suggests is that the unconscious only produces these results when it has been “encoded” with a goal. Many of his experimental results vanish if his subjects are explicitly told, in effect “there won’t be a quiz”.

But I am wondering if there are many other implications of this theory. Consider the high proportion of Asian and Jewish kids that go on to professional careers after a lifetime of “dinner table talk” about becoming a doctor, say, or concert violinist. Such talk might include references to the achievements of relatives, family friends, etc. Could this “dinner table talk” be encoding a goal orientation into these children such that they integrate incoming experience and data towards achieving those goals, which were set at such an early and impressionable age?

Do self-confidence, or even athletic ability manifest themselves in response to “encoded” childhood goals? And, as adults, can we use the power of “intention” and “affirmations” to encode our subconscious to produce the results we want currently and in the future?

I am no scientist, but it seems to me that we can envision the physical strata of the subconscious as a “neural net” in which the slow buildup of various “voltage potentials” play off each other until a threshold value is reached, which triggers the “solution notifier” neuron, which tells us the answer is in. (I warned you I was not a scientist).

Whatever the physical model, I find that Dijksterjuis’ research encourages me to appreciate the unconscious’ capacity for generating outcomes. After all, I trust my unconscious to tell me when I’m hungry, sleepy, fearful, etc. I trust it to make me move (relatively) gracefully. I trust it to help me program in code that it would be impossible to look up every day…and it seems we are at the “tip of the iceberg” in uncovering unconscious capabilities. My prediction: even more astounding results will come in, including remote cognition and precognition.

Just an “unconscious” guess.

Related Posts :

My Success With Written Affirmations

Scott Adams on Written Affirmations


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