Are We in Control or on Autopilot?

Many efforts to change fail, because they are too logical!

Posted Feb 13, 2018

The brain gives rise to all our mental experiences, it causes our emotions, thoughts, actions and decisions. But, it is not a homogeneous processor using repetitive predictable computations for these mental experiences. If we were to sluggishly organize the vastness of its computations, we would end up with a dual brain, where all our mental experiences are the outcome of two systems: a logical conscious and a reflexive non-conscious one.

The conscious system is within our awareness, it is intentional, voluntary, logical, tries to maximize efficiency, gives us some sense that we are in control. In return this system requires two things to function: time and your willingness to exert effort.The non-conscious system is largely if not entirely outside our awareness, reactionary, irrational, effortless and fast. In fact, once activated we don’t have much control because of its reflexive nature-ejecting mental reflexes.

We like to think that we are in control a 100 percent of the time, and that decisions we make are the result of logical and rational computations. Legally and socially we are held accountable for any errors in computations.

Here is the thing that many studies in the field of psychology have shown: The hero is not the conscious logical system, but rather it is the reflexive non-conscious system that runs the show a lot of the time. As technology advances and allows scientists backstage to eavesdrop on the brain, more and more neuro-scientific studies support the notion of a dual brain.

Paradoxically, the lesson “We are in control, we just need to make the intention…” was one of the first lessons I learned in my masters of counseling psychology.

No one can humiliate you without your permission.

The idea here is that upon our orders, our logical conscious mind can dress our egos in a shield that protects us from hurtful words. Unfortunately, our logical mind comes in a bit too late, after our reflexive mind has shrunken our ego to a size too small for the in-preparation logical shield. Words have a powerful impact on our non-conscious! People’s words shuffle mindsets in our mind, and selects internal schema that match the words uttered.

For example, if someone tells you: “You are not good enough,” your non-conscious finds previous situations where you failed and brings it into your conscious stream.

The brain is not only a sensation translator, but it automatically engages in perception. Perception is the story that the non-conscious brain makes from the sensations it receives from the environment. Because, this is a reflexive process, you cannot stop it. For example, look at the word below, but do NOT read it or process its color (For more examples, watch the TEDx talk), I can give all kinds of instructions to your logical conscious brain, but that won’t stop the non-conscious one from reflexively reading the word and processing its colors (if your eyes are open).

If you want to entertain yourself with a heated match between the conscious and unconscious brain, try the Stroop test in the TEDx video.

What does the Stroop effect look like in the real world? We have all been instructed in social etiquette 101: Not to Judge People. We even have come up with clichés like: “Don’t judge the book by its cover.” 

Again, these instructions are similar to look at a word but don’t process it. Regardless of instructions unless you close your eyes, your non-conscious mind will reflexively read it. Judgment is expectations based on pre-programmed mindsets or scripts, and yes when it comes to race we call them stereotypes. We can ambitiously do many workshops to make sure that the hiring committees, the admitting committees at universities, doctors, teachers, and people who make decisions that have serious impact on our future are not racist/ sexist/xenophobic/Islamophobic… But the truth is these workshops mostly appeal to the logical conscious brain and these mis-computations are reflexes of the non-conscious brain. So, at best these workshops will prevent deliberate prejudice.

For efforts to be successful, we have to target both the logical conscious and reflexive non-conscious brain.

So, when both minds wrestle, the reflexive non-conscious one often wins. For two reasons, it is fast, and second, because the logical mind requires effort and we are generally lazy. In fact, this is so prevalent that psychologists call it the “law of least effort” and some of us are even what social psychologists call “cognitive misers” trying to avoid thinking too hard. Even, when the brain gets damaged, the non-conscious mind is the last to go. For example, people who are blind because of cortical brain damage, can still respond to objects that they cannot consciously see! In many amnesiacs, the conscious part of memory is compromised and not the non-conscious components, so amnesiacs can act on memories they clearly say that they cannot remember.

Of course, there are ways to re-program your non-conscious so that it works to your advantage. When I train professionals, the hardest part is to get them to acknowledge that their non-conscious is operating most of the time. But once they concede to their non-conscious, it is much easier to help them reprogram it.

In a nutshell: A mind that is exposed to garbage eventually stinks.