How the subconscious influences “now”

You read and hear a lot about people being influenced by their subconscious and how we make choices being unaware of the influences of our subconscious activity. After all, no one is aware of unconscious stuff as it is by definition unconscious. Yet, our lives are deeply influenced by what is subconscious in us and often not in a healthy way. 

Subconscious activity is all the processing that occurs below the level of awareness. For example, imagine you’re having a casual walk down the street on a sunny day. All of sudden you see a red ball rolling down the street toward you.  What happens?  First, very quickly, below the level of awareness – before you even noticed it was a ball, you already made a decision that you were in danger or not. You can’t help this process, it’s how we are all wired. (For example, if someone says “Hello”, you can’t choose to understand what they mean if you speak English.) 

Neurologically, we all decide if we like something or not (“do I flee, or am I safe”) before we even know what that something is.  Studies prove this by flashing images very quickly on a screen faster than people can determine what they are seeing. When asked, people cannot tell you what they saw but can say if the picture pleasant, or gruesome. This is very interesting. We know if we like something or not, before even know what it is! 

In addition, when people take amnesiatics (a drug that causes you to lose your short term memory) like Valium for example at sufficient quantity, they will not remember what they did for several hours. For this reason, they are often given before unpleasant medical surgeries or dental appointments.  However, while you may not remember the details of what happened, you can tell if you had good time or not.

I recall one time after an outpatient surgery where I was given such a drug.  A few hours after the procedure,  I went to a movie with my son. The next day, I had no idea what the movie was about but I could tell you that I liked it.

How can this happen? The part of the brain that decides if you like something or not, developed as part of the “flight or fight” mechanism. Allegedly, we developed this way because of the need to figure out if we’re in danger very quickly as a survival mechanism. The brain is wired in such a way that deciding if something is safe or not occurs before the conceptual processing part of the brain where you are able to say that “I see a ball.”  As a result, if instead of a ball, you saw a hand-grenade, you would be physically responding to the threat before you could name the danger.  In other words, every experience you have, everything you see or hear – you have already made decisions about before you know what you’ve actually seen or heard.  This can be disconcerting to think about as it challenges the very widely held assumptions that we are self-directed.  We can be, be often aren’t.

Once you have identified the ball, you will access all of the memories that are available related to similar “red ball in the street” experiences. Perhaps in your past, you had a great experience with a parent or caregiver who happened to have a ball or even better, a red ball that played with you. That sense memory is likely to be activated in some way neurologically because it’s an available neural network that is associated with the experience you’re having now. And that sense memory from your past, will also color your experience now. Consequently, you might have a warm feeling come over you, or a smile comes to your lips. 

So you’re seeing the ball, and warm feeling comes over you. You’re having in that moment a combination experience. There’s just the fun of seeing a red ball playfully rolling down the street PLUS the sense memory invoked from your past. 

But, if I were to ask you in that moment, “are you being influenced by any previous memories”, you would likely say no unless the memory had come fully into awareness, and it could. The point being that unless you do become aware of the influence of the past on you’re present experience, you will believe that your in the moment response is completely justified by your in the moment experience, but actually, you in the moment experience is “whatever is actually happened” + “everything associated with that experience from my past”.

This is exactly why people “Overreact”. The response to an expense is colored, amplified, or attenuated by previous experience, and these modifications are largely unnoticed. 

This points out one of the key problems with traditional talk therapy. You can’t just ask people about subconscious material that is bothering them.  The conscious mind can’t answer that.  It would be like asking someone in the audience of a movie, what went wrong during the production of the film. The audience member wasn’t present for the creation of the film, just the showing of it, so cannot know. All we know is what we were shown and can only speculate about events “behind the curtain.”

People are like that. The part of us that creates the movie of our lives is a different part of the brain than the one that experiences it.

Hakomi, and other forms of somatic psychology, use specific techniques that help learn to explore what’s backstage.  To help us “explore the contents of the subconscious” as Ron Kurtz, the creator of Hakomi, would say. 

Here’s how I discovered this powerful work.  In my mid 30’s,  I was dealing with a very difficult breakup in a relationship. I was completely trashed as a result of the way it ended abruptly.  Literally, I was dysfunctional and lost my job a week after it happened. Eventually, I decided that I better get help so  I went to see a therapist. I didn’t know at the time that he was trained in somatic psychology (Hakomi) but quickly learned the power of these techniques. 

A couple of minutes into my story, he interrupted me and said: “did you notice you were making a fist and holding it by your stomach while you talk?”

I replied, “No, I didn’t notice that.” Thinking, “this is an odd thing for him to say!”

He asked, “what do you think that means?”

I said, “Well, I don’t know. I’m just explaining my story.”

He said, “And your fist is also telling us a story.”

Which I found intriguing. 

He skillfully helped direct me to explore the story my fist was telling and turned out to be connected to a crap-ton of unexpressed anger and resentment from my past that was “coloring” my present experience. Yes, I had every right to be devastated, but this was 2x Devastation making it much harder to manage. Realizing this allowed me to work with all of these issues appropriately and was the key to getting my life back on track.  This would not have happened had my therapist stopped me from telling my story, and expired what was being non-verbally and sub-consciously expressed. This is one example of “exploring the contents of the sub-conscious” previously referenced.

 We are deeply influenced by events that occur subconsciously.  Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” provides ample research to substantiate these assertions. Since it isn’t optional, the question becomes “what do I do, knowing this true?”

There is no simple answer here, but I would say that learning to be mindful is an essential skill for humans. There is no other way to sort this out but to know what we are like and be mindful of our experience. In this way, you can learn to tell when you’re reactions are overreactions and respond appropriately rather than disproportionately. In addition, you can learn to spot this same effect in others and in that way, help model mindful awareness.

There is so much to say on this topic, and I hope that in some way this has been through-provoking at least and maybe even helpful. I’m happy to discuss this with you anytime. Click on Let’s Talk! 

 We decide if we like something or not (“do I flee, or am I safe”) before we even know what that something is.