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Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions.

Mental health. But unconscious processing is not just the stuff of compelling personal insight.

For those with emotional disorders like anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, and others who suffer from traumatic brain injuries either from a stroke or an accident, peeling away the behavioral layers of their dysfunction has revealed fascinating activity out of conscious awareness that may eventually provide clues to more effective treatments.   

According to cognitive neuroscientists, we are conscious of only about 5 percent of our cognitive activity, so most of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behavior depends on the 95 percent of brain activity that goes beyond our conscious awareness.

From the beating of our hearts to pushing the grocery cart and not smashing into the kitty litter, we rely on something that is called the adaptive unconscious, which is all the ways that our brains understand the world that the mind and the body must negotiate.

The adaptive unconscious makes it possible for us to, say, turn a corner in our car without having to go through elaborate calculations to determine the precise angle of the turn, the velocity of the automobile, the steering radius of the car.

It is what can make us understand the correct meaning of statements like “prostitutes appeal to pope” or “children make nourishing snacks” without believing that they mean that the pope has an illicit life and cannibals are munching on children.

Language is limited, Zaltman says, “and it can’t be confused with the thought itself.”

Images, however, move a bit closer to capturing fragments of the rich and contradictory areas of unconscious feelings.

Participants in his studies cut out pictures that represent their thoughts and feelings about a particular subject, even if they can’t explain why. He discovered that when people do this, they often discover “a core, a deep metaphor simultaneously embedded in a unique setting.” They are drawn to seasonal or heroic myths, for example, or images like blood and fire and mother.

They are also drawn into deep concepts like journey and transformation. His work around the world has convinced him that the menu of these unconscious metaphors is limited and universal, in the manner of human emotions like hope and grief.

For the brain damaged and for the healthy, despite the evidence of the prevalence of the unconscious in our daily lives, even as fervent a believer as Zaltman urges a bit of caution.

“I don’t think we know what the batting average is for purely rational reasons or reasons dressed up that way, or reasons dressed up as purely intuition. Both can get us into trouble—often do. And both serve us well.”

It is that great tension between the two, the intermingling of the known and the unknown, the conscious and the unconscious, the 5 percent and the 95 percent, that the pioneers exploring this vast and intricate universe of our minds will continue to probe. But there will most likely never be a complete understanding.

After all, the enigmas of the mind, and the mechanics of the brain, will forever define the ultimate mystery of simply being human. 

*It was summarized of Magazine U.S.News (Feb.2005)