|What is Subconscious Mind? How Does it Control Our Actions?|
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In this thought-provoking paper, the author challenges the notion that we are in control of our actions and behavior. Through compelling evidence, the author illustrates that we have very little control over our actions, as they are mostly driven by our subconscious mind.
The author introduces a new concept of "Mental Reflex Actions™", which are actions beyond our conscious control triggered by our subconscious mind. The paper also delves into the controllable and the uncontrollable human behavior. It explains the meaning of subconscious mind, and the unfathomable nature of what gets stored in the subconscious mind. It introduces a new concept of "Subconscious Rule Book" and explains how its contents dictate the course of our life. Our conscious mind is often not even aware of this rule book. Most of us live our entire life without knowing what is there in our subconscious rule book. The paper discusses how knowing our rule book contents can change our life and how to dig into the depth of your subconscious mind to unravel the contents.
By exploring the depths of our subconscious mind, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and those around us. The author explains how this understanding can improve our interpersonal relationships, both in our personal and professional lives, and enhance our people management skills.
Ultimately, the paper argues that the key to understanding others is to know oneself, and that uncovering the secrets of the subconscious mind is the key to breaking free from our self-imposed barriers. These barriers have roots in the rules that we ourselves wrote in our rule book, now hidden in the depths of our subconscious mind.
A must-read for those seeking to understand the intricacies of the human mind and improve their interpersonal relationships.
We Have no Control on Our ActionsContrary to popular belief, we have limited control over our actions. Despite the common assertion that "I am in control of myself," the truth is that much of our behavior is driven by forces beyond our conscious awareness. We are driven to behave the way we do, and we are seldom in command.
Unbelievable, but true. When we think before we decide or act, we do so with our conscious mind. But life is full of decisions and actions at every step. Every moment, our mind is busy analyzing, making split-second decisions and taking actions. Not all actions are results of our conscious analysis. Most often, they are the result of unconscious processes. Our subconscious mind influences our behavior in countless ways, often without us realizing it.
By exploring the workings of the subconscious mind and its impact on our behavior, we can gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and be at peace with the self. It can help us understand others, and improve our relations too.
What is Subconscious Mind?
One example often used to explain the subconscious mind is the process of car driving. Initially, when you are learning to drive, your full attention is focused on the details of the task: the gears, the clutch, and the road ahead. You observe every pothole, every bump, and every obstacle with acute awareness, as you consciously navigate the vehicle (Fig. 1).
Through repeated practice, the act of driving becomes ingrained in the subconscious mind and the conscious mind is freed from the task of driving. Driving decisions and actions go out of the conscious mind to the subconscious mind. You make decisions automatically and you drive instinctively. By the time you reach the destination, you may not recall specific bumps or potholes encountered along the way, as your subconscious mind smoothly navigated the journey without conscious awareness. You did all that without being conscious of it.
The example of an elephant in a circus provides another excellent illustration of the workings of the subconscious mind.
If you have ever been to a circus, you may have observed that the enormous elephants are secured by tying with a chain to a small stick dug in the ground (called a stake). With its incredible strength, the mighty elephant can easily pull the stake from the ground and escape. However, it chooses not to do so. Once it is tethered to the stake, the elephant stays put.. Now the question arises, what reasons compel the elephant remain tied?
Years back when the elephant was young, it was tied up with the same chain to the same stake. The baby elephant made several attempts to escape, but to no avail. It pulled with all its might, causing its feet to bleed and experiencing great pain. It did that again and again, and eventually gave up. The repeated failed attempts to break free, fueled with the sight of blood and fear of pain, only reinforced the belief that it was impossible to escape when tied to the stake. Over time, this belief became ingrained in the elephant's subconscious mind.
Years later, despite having grown up and having acquired enough strength to uproot the stake, the elephant still chooses to remain within the radius of the chain. The subconscious mind controls the elephant's actions and behaviors for the rest of its life, much like it controls the actions of a car driver.
Repeated events, occurrences, experiences, or self-assertions can embed an idea, learning, or rule into the subconscious mind, causing one to follow that rule automatically, like a robot, without conscious decision-making.
To better understand the workings of the subconscious mind, try the following exercise: Hold your palm up horizontally and flat in front of your face. Now, close your eyes and imagine that you are holding a lemon on your palm right before your eyes. I encourage you to try this exercise before reading any further.
Did you experience your mouth watering when you imagined a lemon in your palm? The conscious mind knows that there is no lemon and that it is only an imagination. The subconscious mind is irrational and blindly reacts to the imagery presented by the conscious mind, leading to a physical response such as salivation.
While the conscious mind is responsible for logical and analytical reasoning, the subconscious mind is characterized by its irrationality and intuitive nature. As a result, the subconscious mind is often illogical and can lead to behaviors and actions that seem irrational from a logical standpoint.
Subconscious Rule Book
Just as avoiding potholes and negotiating bumps on the road while driving a car, we have been navigating life's journey since early childhood, encountering various obstacles and challenges along the way. These experiences have taught us important lessons, giving us insights to identify the potholes and bumps on the road of life. Based on whether the outcomes of our earlier reactions were positive or negative, we made important judgments and decisions on do's and don'ts for life, things we should do and what we should avoid. We made our own inferences on where the life's potholes and bumps lie, what they look like, and what we should do in life to either avoid or manage them.
We formed opinions and passed judgments about ourselves, about people around us, about what type of people are good and what type are bad. We accumulated some learning and created our behavioral ground rules or a rule-book that I call "The Subconscious Rule Book". This rule-book is the foundation of our beliefs and biases which we carry all our life. We call it the subconscious rule book because, as we will see, most of these rules end up residing in the subconscious mind.
This book, apart from having rules, has also recorded our own opinions and biases about ourselves and others.
All of us made conclusions about people based on their appearance. Just because that person with long nose and grey eyes we met was bad, and the experience got repeated by chance, our brain concluded that all those with long nose and grey eyes are bad. An irrational rule was written in the rule-book. Remember, we started writing into this rule-book as a kid.
Whenever we got into situations or faced conditions which resulted in unpleasant experiences, our brain worked out ways to avoid such situations by retracting, withdrawing, eluding, evading or staying clear of them. For instance, you went to a party and got into an embarrassing situation, or someone made an unpleasant comment about you, you made a judgment about yourself and added another rule in your rule book – never to go to parties again. A few repetitions of similar incidents, and the rule got written in stone in your subconscious rule book. For the rest of your life, you would try to subconsciously avoid parties, without your conscious mind being aware of the rule which you wrote which has been driving your decisions.
We have actually identified the potholes on the path of our life. These potholes are situations or conditions which led to embarrassment or unpleasant experiences. Or they some specific physical traits, etc. that we have associated with "bad guys" to be avoided. We call them "mental potholes", as they may not be real, they are the creation of our minds. As we navigate through our life's journey, we consciously make an effort to steer clear of these potholes (Fig. 2).
Unfortunately, our brain tries to seek further validation to support our beliefs and rules, even if our beliefs may not necessarily be logical. When some of these experiences get repeated, albeit by chance, our beliefs get the support that we subconsciously try to seek: "See, I was right!" we tell ourselves. We feel happy when our beliefs and rules get reinforced.
Similar to how our driving skills become automatic through frequent repetition, our brain's judgments and rules also become deeply ingrained in our subconscious mind through repeated reinforcement. Once embedded in the subconscious mind, these beliefs and rules remain active throughout our lives, even if our conscious mind has "delegated" them and forgotten about them. We will see the significance of the word "delegated" in the next section.
These rules get so firmly established in our subconscious mind that we automatically react to people and situations in a specific way as defined in our rule book. We may not even be aware of why we reacted in a certain way, or that we reacted exactly as per the subconscious rule book.
Similar to how we drive the car while avoiding the potholes and slowing down for bumps without consciously noticing, we tread the life's path avoiding imaginary mental potholes, slowing down for the bumps that we have defined, without even realizing that we are doing so, and without realizing why we are doing so.
Our behavior is largely involuntary and governed by what I call Mental Reflex Actions™ (discussed later), based on the knowledge base and rule-book stored in our subconscious mind.
Despite our self-perception of being highly balanced and making conscious decisions, our behavior is largely driven by involuntary actions, and we often react without consciously knowing why.
As we navigate through life's journey, we often drive in a topsy-turvy manner due to the mental potholes that we have defined since childhood (Fig. 2). Similar to the elephant's situation, these mental potholes may no longer exist due to changed conditions or may have never existed in the first place It's possible that we have erred in our judgment and created bumps where there are none. Despite this, we continue to avoid these mental potholes or slow down for bumps without consciously noticing these imaginary potholes, or our topsy-turvy driving.
You may have experienced sometimes that you act in a way and then the very next moment, you ask yourself, "Hey, now why did I do what I did?" Most likely, you did so because of a mental pothole. You will be surprised to know that actually the situations may have changed, conditions in your life may have changed, your own abilities have changed, but you were simply reacting to a mental pothole the way your mind has got conditioned to react to it.
By the time we grow up as adults, we accumulate a vast list of rules - we would have authored a personal volume of rule book. Similar to the elephant's situation, most of our rules are restrictive, they tie us down. They act as barriers that prevent us from taking action. Since we feel a sense of satisfaction when we are proved right, we subconsciously seek out situations or create conditions that validate our rules. We almost fall in love with our rule book. We continue to add new rules throughout our lives, resulting in a massive collection of rules in our Subconscious Rule Book.
Anatomy of a Subconscious Rule
To gain a better understanding of our subconscious rules, we can refer back to the example of the elephant tied to a stake.
By understanding these two parts of a rule, we can gain a deeper understanding of our subconscious rule book and the beliefs and biases that guide our behavior.
To understand how our rule book governs our actions and lives, we can draw an analogy to how businesses operate. In business organizations, there is a hierarchy of managers where senior managers define policies and rules, and junior employees follow them without questioning. This approach speeds up decision-making, as junior officers can take appropriate action based on established rules and guidelines.
This approach improves efficiency and appears to be the right way to function. Senior brains are not disturbed by minor decisions, allowing them to focus on more important decisions for the future. Additionally, senior brains are more expensive, so it's more cost-effective to delegate minor decision-making to junior employees who can execute them using the established rules. This is why organizations too have a rule book, which is called a policy document.
We can also compare our rule book to a computer program. A programmer creates the logic and codes it into a program, which consists of a set of instructions specifying "what to do when". The computer program also has instructions of the type "IF…THEN.." discussed above. The program is then executed by the computer's Central Processing Unit (CPU), which follows the instructions without questioning, regardless of their accuracy, much like a mindless follower.
In humans, the "Rule Details" part of our rule is created by the conscious mind, which is logical and analytical. The conscious mind is equivalent to senior officers in a business organization or a computer programmer. Once the rules are established, the conscious mind delegates the rule book to the subconscious mind (see Fig. 4). Since the conscious mind is constantly busy and our brains have to make quick decisions every moment, the subconscious mind acts as the junior officers or the computer CPU, swiftly executing actions based on the rule book.
So, what does the subconscious mind do? The subconscious mind only looks at the title of the rule (IF...THEN...) and instantly acts accordingly, without considering the second part of the rule, the "Because" or detailed justification for the action. In fact, the subconscious mind may not even have access to the detailed explanation or justification of the rule. Similarly, in businesses, policy documents only contain rules, without providing the reasoning behind them. Junior officers follow the rules without being given details about the reasoning behind them. The subconscious mind simply executes the rules, doing a super quick and efficient job, while the conscious mind remains undisturbed.
This process improves our decision-making ability of the conscious mind, and speedier execution of actions by the subconscious mind - similar to how businesses operate. However, there is a significant problem that arises.
The Problem with the Subconscious Rule Book
The problem is that we started forming these judgments at a very young age when we lacked both the ability to assess the situations, and the maturity to make informed decisions. Based on our juvenile perspectives, we developed a set of do's and don'ts based on our limited understanding of the world.
Mental Reflex Action™
A significant portion of our irrationality can be attributed to our subconscious mind. This irrationality is caused by what I refer to as Mental Reflex ActionTM, which is similar to the physical reflex action that we are familiar with. Physical reflex action occurs when our body reacts to a stimulus before the message reaches our rational brain, resulting in an automatic reaction that we are not consciously aware of.
Mental reflex action occurs when our brain makes a split-second decision based on our subconscious rule book, resulting in an automatic response. The brain quickly references the rule book, and executes the resultant action without any delay like a computerized output. As we make numerous split-second decisions every moment, the subconscious rule book helps us make instant decisions each time there is a stimulus without the delay of conscious reasoning. It is a different matter that most of the rules in this book were written in our childhood and can be biased.
There is, however, a significant difference between the physical reflex action and the mental reflex action. While we become aware of the reaction a few moments after physical reflex action, we may never be aware of the reactions resulting from mental reflex action. The elephant does not know that it is reacting to an irrational rule in its rule book. Therefore, the irrational rule book may never get revised or corrected.
The Subconscious Pain Points
Each of us carries in our minds a list of personal qualities that we consider "not OK". These qualities can relate to our physical appearance, complexion, abilities, or nature. These traits can be classified into two categories:
The first category of painful traits comprises traits that cause heartburn and a sense of inadequacy, leaving us hurt and ashamed when reminded of them. In contrast, the second category includes traits that we are comfortable admitting to and do not cause us any significant distress.
It is the painful traits that often drive us to exhibit unnatural or abnormal behavior. These "Not OK" traits stem from opinions we formed about ourselves during childhood or from past embarrassing experiences that reinforced negative self-evaluations.
We try to forget these thoughts and memories of our painful traits, burying them deep within our subconscious mind. Although they may fade from our conscious thoughts, they continue to reside in our subconscious mind. They remain with us as our subconscious pain points.
When you have a stomach ache, the doctor checks for pain by poking various points and asking if it hurts. It may not pain when the doctor presses at different points, and suddenly when he presses at a particular point, you scream in pain. The doctor thus locates your physical pain point. Similarly, each one of us has psychological pain points related to our personality or character. These pain points are areas where we feel inadequate, flawed or inferior or say "I am not OK".
Different incidents and experiences in life may lightly touch different parts of our personality, causing little or no pain. However, some incidents poke our subconscious pain points, and we react explosively. Our behavior is the most unpredictable when we are ruffled up on any of your subconscious pain points.
Incidents in life or comments from people around us may continuously touch our conscience, but we may not react until it pricks our subconscious pain point and then the reaction is again almost explosive.
Since these pain points are different for different individuals, people may react differently to the same stimuli. For instance, one person may be deeply hurt by a derogatory comment, while someone else may not care at all.
It is not uncommon that when a group of people to receive the same derogatory comment, some in the group are driven to extremes, while others remain unfazed. For those who felt hurt, the abuse poked the pain point, whereas for others it did not.
When we encounter these subconscious pain points, we are often overwhelmed by intense emotions. and our reactions may not be well-controlled. These emotions can be linked to the same sensations that we first experienced when we had that same unpleasant and painful experience as a child, which we tried to push under the carpet and banish from our minds. In these situations, we feel powerless to control our reactions and are driven by our subconscious minds. When we face a situation that touches our subconscious pain point, we react spontaneously and compulsively. However hard we try to act differently, we are often unable to do so, as the same violent emotions and sensations take over and dictate our behavior.
We all have pain points, which lead to our idiosyncrasies. When these pain points are disturbed by a stimulus, such as a comment made by someone about us, we react sharply, revealing the driven nature of our behavior. We are driven to some behavior and are absolutely helpless in these circumstances. Our actions are then orchestrated by our subconscious mind, despite our desire to behave differently.
When we get upset, we may tend to blame others or external factors, but this is far from the truth. Very often, we are the ones who have upset ourselves. Whenever we feel annoyed or piqued, it is not because of any external factor, but because of our own inferiority complex, rooted in deep-seated pain points within us.
By recognizing this this aspect, we can gain greater insight into human behavior. It can spare us a lot of heartburn about our own behavior and the behavior of others.
How to Uncover Your Subconscious Pain Points
The Learning - Our Behavior is Driven by our Subconscious Mind
Our actions are largely influenced by the subconscious mind, with only a few being consciously driven. While subconscious actions may resemble reflex actions, they differ in significant ways.
Brave New World - A Peep into the Future
We mostly remain ignorant of our subconscious rule book and its contents. For most of us, this hidden manual remains undiscovered throughout our entire lives. As we stand today, though extremely difficult, we can only hope to uncover the hidden rule book, identify the messy rules within it, and attempt to break free from our subconscious bondages using difficult and challenging methods.
eJournals where this article is availableThis article is available as an academic paper in the following eJournals/Issues. You can read the abstract of the paper and also download a pdf copy of the article from this ssrn.com site link.
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copyright © 2001 Prem Kamble (Updated 2021)