What Do You Know That You Don't Know You Know?
Your subconscious and your conscious may have different agendas.
Posted Oct 10, 2018
Sometimes it takes a while to accept as true what’s pretty much crystallized in your subconscious. A matter settled within you, or taken its final form, simply may not be ready to be admitted into consciousness. It can’t yet be explicitly known because, whether it’s a preference, decision, intuition or insight, a self-protective part of you (rationally or not) refuses to grant you permission to openly acknowledge it.
Moreover, what you don’t have conscious access to could relate to just about any inner frustration or conflict, serious or not. At its worst, however, what’s concealed could be something that feels so terrifying that, deep inside you, you might fear that letting it surface would be to open Pandora’s Box.
To look at it a little differently, whatever conclusion you may have reached about a person, place, or thing remains safely hidden until, mentally and emotionally, what you’re safeguarding from awareness is experienced as imperative to apprehend or express.
Admittedly, I wasn’t able to find any research studies focusing specifically on what I see as a fairly common phenomenon, one that can apply to almost anything—good or bad, comic or tragic, joyous or gloomy, scary or thrilling. Regardless of the subject, there’s a certain lag time (from minutes to maybe months or even years) before a decision or preference that’s become a reality within you can manifest itself, be recognizable—and finally accepted.
Nonetheless, at some point you’re obliged to appreciate the seemingly “newfound” knowledge that must be confronted. It might have been too confusing, frightening, intimidating, provoking—or maybe something that could tip you over into unmanageable anger, grief, anxiety, or depression. But again, what you’ve kept camouflaged from yourself could relate to almost anything, even something comparatively trivial. Following are just a few things that might exist furtively below conscious awareness:
- Committing to a relationship.
- Breaking up an engagement, or leaving a marriage.
- Whether to return to a conflict with your partner still unresolved.
- Which of 15 or so houses you’ve been considering you’re going to put a bid on.
- Where you’ll take your next vacation.
- What college or university you’re going to attend.
- What you’re going to major in.
- Whether you’re going to quit your job—or take a new one.
- Whether you’ll accept someone as a friend or ally.
- Whether you're going to confide in someone.
- Which car you’re going to buy.
- Which restaurant you’ll eat at.
- And so on, and so on [and do consider examples from your own life in which your conscious mind appeared to “trail” your subconscious one].
To offer but one example, I once worked with a couple that had been living together for over six years. They both had partial custody of children from an earlier failed marriage and were somewhat gun-shy about tying the knot themselves. On many levels, the motivational forces—or hindrances—of their situation were complicated (if not convoluted). So it was understandable that though they regularly talked about “officializing” their relationship through marriage, making a final decision on the matter continued to elude them.
But at one point, subsequent to a bad—and clearly unresolvable—argument, they sat down and mutually agreed that, despite their powerful emotional investment in the relationship, it was time to break up. As much as they cared about each other, they had to admit that ultimately a satisfying, lasting union between them wasn't viable. In both personality and temperament, there were just too many frustrating, irremediable differences between them. And they also had to confess that, deep within, they’d essentially known this for some time, though they hadn’t been emotionally ready to permit this nascent knowledge to emerge into full consciousness.
Which seems somehow reminiscent of a quotation I believe I heard many years ago, though I couldn’t locate its source:
Three months before the relationship was over, the relationship was over.
Exemplifying the title of this post, such a characterization reflects that before a relationship actually ends, it may—somewhere in your subconscious—already have ended.
Unfortunately, my observations here don’t lend themselves very well to academic scrutiny because any studies here would need to rely on self-reports, which may not be trustworthy. By way of qualification, though, I should add that several neuroscientists have investigated a related (more clear-cut and “researchable”) phenomenon. Repeatedly, they’ve shown that your brain decides on something seconds before you’re actually conscious of it.
Consider, for example, how these various titles link to one another:
- “Brain Scans Can Reveal Your Decisions 7 Seconds Before You ‘Decide’” (n.d.)
- “Brain Scanners Can See Your Decisions Before You Make Them” (2008)
- “Unconscious Determinants of Free Decisions in the Human Brain” (2008)
- “An Electrophysiological Signature of Unconscious Recognition Memory” (2009)
- “Your Brain Knows a Lot More Than You Realize” (2011)
- “Research Shows Our Subconscious Mind Makes Our Decisions for Us” (2014)
So, what are the implications of knowing something from within before you’re able to grasp it outwardly? Would it be helpful to deliberately “prompt” such advanced knowledge up to consciousness? At least one author has suggested that such a feat could be effected through a practice of regular meditation. (See “Four Secrets of the Subconscious Mind You May Not Know.”) He argues—though his views aren’t backed by any research I'm aware of—that through meditating:
. . . your mind is able to cut through all of the “noise” of daily life [and enable you] to strongly feel what your subconscious is telling you. [And that through this endeavor] you will feel the power to “re-program” your subconscious mind and lead it in a direction that is more productive and useful toward your goals in life.
But as hopeful—or lofty—as this description sounds, I frankly doubt that such a transformation of inner programming can be effected this easily. And getting back to where this post started, it’s not only questionable how much you can prompt such knowledge through meditation, but also how prudent it might be to try. For if the knowledge you seek hasn’t yet arisen spontaneously from your subconscious, it may be because it’s the innate wisdom of your brain not to advance it forward because your conscious mind may not be ready to tackle it.
Perhaps the best alternative here is simply to become more introspective and honest with yourself. That way, you can arrive at decisions beneficial to your welfare in as timely a manner as might, personally, be tenable.
© 2018 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.