The world in our brain, beyond the conscious

The importance of the non-conscious in decision making is by far the most significant discovery about human behaviour


Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

It is so easy to believe that the earth is flat and that the sun is revolving around the earth because that is what our eyes see. Similarly, it is so easy to believe that we are always conscious of what we are doing and what is happening around us.

Organized religions and our legal system have reinforced the belief that we are all aware of our actions, have willed them, and so, are responsible for them.

According to Harvard University professor Daniel M. Wegner, when we have thoughts that occur just before an action, and when these thoughts are consistent with the action, and when other potential causes of the action are not present, we believe that we have willed our action. If I thought of reading today’s newspaper, picked it up and started reading it, it is a clear example of how my consciousness is in charge of my life and guiding all my actions.

The initial attempts to put forward an alternative theory of human behaviour did not meet with much success. Sigmund Freud, in 1915, put forward the theory that most of human behaviour occurs below consciousness.

However, his explanation of the subconscious being a storehouse of childhood experiences, mostly of a sexual nature, could not stand the test of scientific scrutiny.

The claim by James Vicary, in 1957, that he increased the sale of popcorn and Coca-Cola by subliminally flashing “Drink Coke” and “Eat Popcorn”, created quite a stir among those interested in finding more effective ways to persuade human behaviour. But his later admission of his experiments being unreliable made any discussion about non-conscious behaviour a taboo.

But the new millennium saw several scientific studies that proved that human behaviour extends far beyond conscious processes. Picking up the newspaper was not a simple conscious act after all; many non-conscious aspects lie beneath. The fingers we used to pick the newspaper up, the delicate pressure exerted to hold the paper, the angle at which the newspaper was held, the awareness of the language of the newspaper—most of these were not consciously thought through.

Mounting evidence from medical sciences proves that there is a world in our brains beyond the conscious. The famous neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran’s explanation of the unusual medical cases of an amputee suddenly feeling intense pain in his phantom limb, and of a blind patient who cannot see a pen that is held before her but manages to reach out and grab it, is rooted in the intricacies of non-conscious brain processes.

The famous experiment by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s proved that the non-conscious brain decides about 0.3 seconds before a person is conscious of his own decision/action—something that Libet could pinpoint using an electroencephalogram (EEG).

This revelation generated lots of discussions not just about the preponderance of the non-consciousness in our decision-making process, but more so about the holy cow of consciousness theory—free will.

The limits of human consciousness are clearly evident in sports arenas. Sport psychologists have discovered that the minimum time our conscious brain requires just to react to a stimuli, hear the sound of a starting gun and start sprinting, for instance, is 0.1 second. Any athlete who reacts before 0.1 seconds is therefore disqualified.

But the time a player gets, in games likes cricket, baseball and tennis, to decide which shot to play, is less than 0.02 seconds—the vast gulf between 0.1 and 0.02 indicates that such decisions are taken non-consciously.

These experiments show that the non-conscious is five to 10 times faster in taking decisions when compared to our conscious. It is this superior speed of the non-conscious that makes a person freeze in his tracks to avoid stepping on a snake. The conscious processes step in a second or two later to confirm that it was a twig and not a snake. The super-fast non-conscious, that might go wrong a few times, is evolutionarily more useful for survival than the slow, conscious brain.

The famous invisible gorilla experiment demonstrated that those counting the number of passes a basketball team is making miss the gorilla that’s dancing in front of their eyes. It is proof that the conscious brain can focus on only one activity at a time.

Neuroscience experts have started putting numbers to the capacity of our brain processes. It is now estimated that our sensory system can handle 11 million bits per second. The most optimistic number of bits that the consciousness can process is a mere 50 bits per second. Given the superior speed and the overwhelming capacity advantage, it’s a no-brainer (no pun intended) that a vast majority of our decisions are taken by the non-conscious.

The importance of the non-conscious in decision making is by far the most significant discovery about human behaviour. Policymakers and corporate strategists can only ignore this factor at their own peril. The scientific data that demonstrates the huge significance of the brain’s non-conscious processes is overwhelming.

But will it change our blind faith in the consciousness? After all, a very large percentage of people, even in developed countries, still believe that it all began with Adam and Eve a few thousands of years ago.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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