The subconscious mind is a term used to describe the hidden mind. The term originates from the times of Freud and psychoanalysis, where it was used to describe the covert emotional drives that govern human behavior. These days, it is often used mistakenly to describe the nonconscious mind, so let’s first set the record straight with some definitions:
- Subconscious: a term originating from Freudian psychoanalysis that describes hidden emotional states
- Nonconscious: the automatic, impulse-driven mind, that is also hidden from conscious awareness
- Unconscious: the state of being in which an individual is not aware of, or capable of responding to their surroundings
- Conscious: what you are right now – awake, aware, and able to respond to information
It’s not uncommon to hear about conscious and unconscious types of actions when scientists talk about the brain. As a result, most of us are familiar with the idea that our behavior is less rational than we believe it to be.
The idea of deeper levels of information processing was developed and extensively studied by famous Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) who introduced the 3-level mind model. According to his model, the mind could be divided into following levels:
Three-level mind model
- Conscious – defines all thoughts and actions within our awareness. For example, the beauty and pleasance of the smell of a red tulip
- Subconscious – defines all reactions and automatic actions we can become aware of if we think about them. For example, our ability to drive a car: once we get skilled we stop thinking about which gears to use, which pedals to press, or which mirror to look at, yet can always become aware of what was done once we think about it.
- Unconscious – defines all past events and memories, though at times inaccessible to us no matter how hard we try to remember to bring things up. For example, the first word we’ve learned to say, or how it felt to be able to walk on our own.
Up to this day, the ability to explain how the interaction of different levels of thoughts influences our behavior remains one of the most compelling challenges in psychology and neuroscience.
In order to untangle how one level of thought influences the other, scientists must become able to detect different depths of the mind.
Quite often, the levels of information processing could be captured using priming paradigms. For example, a recent psychological study showed how irrelevant cues shape learning and suggested that the effect of conscious, subconscious, and unconscious thoughts can be modeled varying presentation time of emotional faces.
In this experiment, participants were presented with a set of pictures of human faces and were asked to determine whether the facial expression in a previous picture mimicked the same emotion.
Interestingly, results showed that people were able to correctly recognize the difference between facial expressions if pictures were displayed for at least 0.047s. Once the duration of pictures was decreased to 0.027s – 0.033s, the rate of correct responses dropped by approximately a half. In contrast, respondents became unable to discriminate the facial expressions if the duration of the stimulus was decreased even more – to 0.020s.
This way, research demonstrated clear differentiation of conscious and unconscious influence of thoughts: people were only able to give error-free answers if the picture could reach the level of conscious awareness. More surprisingly, duration of pictures, shown for as long as 0.027s – 0.033s, couldn’t be sufficient for stimulus verbalization at the level of conscious awareness, yet had
More surprisingly, duration of pictures, shown for as long as 0.027s – 0.033s, couldn’t be sufficient for stimulus verbalization at the level of conscious awareness, yet had a measurable influence on behavior.
Specifically, the rate of correct responses decreased just by half, meaning that participants were still partially able to provide with correct responses and indicated the presence of the subconscious mind.
You might get curious whether the brain activation differs when we experience an influence of subconscious versus conscious mind. You might want to know why conscious thoughts are often processed slower than unconscious thoughts.
Or might question whether scientists can define exact processing pathways of such tiny subtle concepts as subconscious thought.
Until recently, it was impossible to capture where in the brain these thought processes occur or visualize specific brain activation regions. However, the rise of brain imaging methods allowed researchers to study thought-processing pathways by providing an opportunity to picture changes in the neuroanatomy of a brain.
Today, brain imaging research has indeed this model of the mind and suggested that the depth of thought depends on its processing pathway. In particular, studies (study 1, study 2) showed that the pathways of conscious and unconscious thoughts could be clearly differentiated.
In contrast, the pathway of the subconscious mind is much more difficult to define. In fact, subconscious thoughts do not seem to have their own processing pathway. Rather, they share the bits of both – conscious and unconscious – routes of information processing.
You might want to define the influence of subconscious thought if you are interested in how its presence shapes consumer behavior. While only a few of us have an extensive scientific background, access to research laboratories, and sufficient funds to run these types of studies, it’s incorrect to assume that there’s no other way to harness the power of the subconscious mind.
As a solution, iMotions offer a cutting-edge platform allowing to address such challenges of research. Please check this link for more information.
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Horga, G., & Maia, T. V. (2012). Conscious and unconscious processes in cognitive control: a theoretical perspective and a novel empirical approach. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 6.
Meneguzzo, P., Tsakiris, M., Schioth, H. B., Stein, D. J., & Brooks, S. J. (2014). Subliminal versus supraliminal stimuli activate neural responses in anterior cingulate cortex, fusiform gyrus and insula: a meta-analysis of fMRI studies. BMC psychology, 2(1), 1.
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Watanabe, N., & Haruno, M. (2015). Effects of subconscious and conscious emotions on human cue-reward association learning. Scientific reports, 5.