What is the Unconscious Mind, Anyway?

morning-girl-and-skyIf you pay attention to what people say when they talk about your unconscious mind, you’ll notice that they’re not particularly consistent. For instance, they’ll say your unconscious mind is childishly literal and that it’s the source of your creativity. And they’ll say that your unconscious is always looking out for you, but isn’t it also the little voice in your head that, when you come home in the evening and face an angry spouse, points out, “It’s your anniversary today,” which begs the question, “Why the heck didn’t you tell me this yesterday?”

The fact is that “unconscious mind” is an umbrella term for many different functions, most of which, though cool, are poorly understood. For that matter, the division between consciousness and the unconscious also varies from moment to moment. For example, you probably weren’t conscious of the sensations in your left big toe until I mentioned it, and yet, when your toe requires your attention, such as when you stub it against something, you focus on it automatically. The rest of the time, it’s in the background, allowing your conscious mind to focus on something else.

And that means that the term “unconscious mind” refers to everything your brain is doing that you’re not conscious of at the moment, including some things that you’ve never had consciousness of yet, that seem inaccessible, and others that you are conscious of from time to time.

Part of this is presumably purely a matter of brain training, while others revolve around the mind-body connection. Most of us don’t know how to dilate our pupils at will, and make the pupil of the right and left eyes different from one another. This is usually considered to be an unconscious reflex, but some people can control their pupils at will; it’s a skill you can learn. And if this “involuntary reflex” can be controlled, what can’t be?

So when you’re not dilating them consciously, your pupils are being controlled by the unconscious mind, which also controls your dreams at night, manages your heart and your digestion, comes up with weird and wonderful ideas, and reacts to things you’re only imagining as if they are happening right now. These are very different functions, but they’re all tied together somehow.

So far, the immense complexity of the nervous system has kept us from figuring these things out with the kind of precision that we expect from a science. Discovering the laws of planetary motion and gravity are child’s play by comparison! But it’s always been true that the way things start is that theory lags far behind practice, and we know about things that work and things that don’t, even though we don’t exactly know why. Not only can we enjoy music without understanding the neural pathways behind this, we can compose music without knowing this. Perhaps someday we’ll know enough about neural theory that music theory becomes a subset of it, but in the meantime we have a patchwork of different disciplines based on what works and what doesn’t.

Hypnosis is like this, too. Hypnosis is a set of techniques that enhance communication with the unconscious mind and, through it, allow access to the mind-body connection. There are a lot of excellent hypnotic techniques for a variety of uses, and a patchwork of theory that allows you to predict likely results and extend the boundaries of practice, though as far as getting back to  first causes, it ain’t gonna happen for a long time yet, any more than we can answer, “Why do humans like music, exactly?”

I could say a lot about left-brain vs. right-brain, cerebral cortex vs. cerebellum, brain stem, and peripheral nerves, but I’m not going to today. The main take-away is that our minds are compartmentalized, but communication between every part exists. The pathways can be long and indirect — people who’ve had their brain hemispheres separated can no longer take the short path, the corpus callosium, for left-brain/right-brain communication, but signals can still go down to the brain stem and back up into the other hemisphere, or take the long way and use one hand to let the other know what it’s doing. Everything we know about the mind is an over-simplification, and it’s good to assume that “there’s always another way.”

And with all the thousands or millions of combinations of “other ways” that we use every day, and others that we can learn to use, you can see how the “unconscious mind” is a very loose concept indeed.

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Robert Plamondon
Robert Plamondon has written three books, received over 30 U.S. patents, founded several businesses, and is an expert on free-range chickens. Robert's publishing company, Norton Creek Press, is a treasure trove of reprinted classics, including Hypnotherapy of War Neuroses, which covers treating PTSD in veterans. Robert and his wife Karen sell free-range chicken and eggs at the Corvallis farmers' markets. Robert's hypnotherapy office is in downtown Corvallis.

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