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Do we have control over our subconscious mind?

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Do we have control over our subconscious mind?

Scott Miker

The subconscious mind is incredible.  Studying the various ways that our mind operates it is easy to see that there are many thoughts and behaviors that develop automatically.  

In The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam, the author explores the hidden aspects of our brain.  The book is a fascinating look at our biases and the ways in which evolution has created processes in our mind that often vary from our intentions.  

The author states “Scientists have long known that there are many brain activities that lie outside the ken of conscious awareness; your brain regulates your heart, keeps you breathing, and makes you turn over in your sleep at night.  None of these things feels strange or disturbing.  We are perfectly happy to delegate such mundane chores to - to what?  To some hidden part of our brain that does all that boring stuff.”

It then goes on to say “Even a cursory examination of this theory, however, suggests flaws.  You have no awareness, for example, of how your brain is taking visual images from this page, translating symbols into recognizable letters, combining the letters into words and sentences, and producing meaning.  All you - meaning your conscious brain - must do is decide to read, and the rest flows seamlessly.”

To me this fascinating.  It points to areas of our lives that we ignore and that largely get accomplished automatically.  But the key question that comes into my mind is how can we access this, develop it, and train so that we can better accomplish goals and objectives?

At first glance we may say that we don’t have any control over this.  We don’t have access to our subconscious and it happens automatically so there is nothing that we can do about it. 

But a deeper dive says that we didn’t come out of the womb with the ability to translate symbols into recognizable letters and read from a book.  Studying martial arts, yoga, singing or a host of other activities places a focus on being able to control our breathing and heart rate.  We may not control every beat but we can certainly calm our mind through various breathing and relaxation techniques which can affect our heart beat and adjust our breathing.    

What I have noticed is that we tend to develop these abilities which are largely determined by our habits.  Our habits are the outward, behavioral expression of our subconscious mind.  And we do have access to habits in a way in which gives us control.

But most people only need enough control to get to a mediocre ability.  Most Americans have a drivers license and have the ability to drive.  Yet most understand that driving to work everyday provides examples of various types and skill levels of drivers.  The overly defensive driver, the speedy, late-for-work driver, the swerver, the lack of blinker lane-changer, etc.  Once we have our license what motivation do we have to improve?  If we can safely drive our vehicle without too many accidents and tickets, what motivation do we have to get better?  We don’t have any which is why most people get to a certain ability level and then coast along letting their newly acquired habits take over and keep them going in the same direction.

Unfortunately we do this with almost every aspect of our lives.  We get complacent and let our habits control our improvement.  Habits are great at solidifying new behaviors but horrible at systematic improvement, unless we consciously focus on them.  If we identify areas of improvement and then work on developing the habits to succeed we can, in fact, nudge our subconscious mind in the direction that we want to go.  

Just as we learned to read, ride a bike or write a letter, our subconscious mind works along with our conscious mind and our habits to accomplish a task.  But how many of us have improved our ability to ride a bike since childhood or have drastically improved our ability to read?

Developing a system thinking mindset we start to ask different questions.  We want to know what we can do to improve, rather than maintain.  The strange thing is that this actually helps us to maintain excellence.  Winning sports teams, olympic athletes, and even highly specialized military units hold this at their core and it shows through consistent, above-average performance.  By constantly trying to grow and improve successful teams and individuals stay ahead of the pack.  

It is true that our subconscious mind controls so many aspects of our lives that it largely goes unnoticed.  But we can start to gain control by focusing on systematically improving the habits in our lives.  Doing this we will develop the behaviors and actions that we hope will become automatic and change the focus to be on getting better rather than simply maintaining.