Conscious Thoughts on the Subconscious
Neurobiology and Behavior
April 14, 2008
Exploring the subjectivity of certain aspects of neurobiology using the definition of unconscious as an example.
Have you ever wondered if you decided to catch a ball flying at you? Or are you even aware when you exert a nervous tick, like rubbing your hands or tapping your feet? These are things that seem rooted in the subconscious. Before researchers can address the hows and the whys of subconscious I believe a solid basis of what exactly the subconscious “is” is necessary. As of right now before I complete any research I believe that subconscious is something that you do instinctively or are not aware of, such as catching a ball or having a nervous tick. A lot of these things you never become aware of unless they are pointed out to you by an observer, since they are so engraved into your actions. Everyone from motivational speakers (John Highman) to encyclopedias has weighed in on the subconscious and what exactly that encompasses, with an incredible variation among them.
John Highman claims that, “Our subconscious mind is the most powerful part of our brain. The subconscious mind is a continuous tape recorder playing messages and recording feedback on your activities.” The thing that sticks out in that statement is the assumption that the subconscious is in the brain, which to my knowledge has not been shown in any studies conducted. Though since it is assumed that all of our higher functions take place in the brain, that the subconscious would occur there too. This theory brings to mind several questions including, If our subconscious is in our brain then would that not mean that it can be damaged through trauma just as any other section can be? If our subconscious is damaged then does that mean we are aware of everything we come into contact with and that we must make a decision for each movement? I have never read any study where a person was physically aware of everything going on around them. I am unsure that it is physically possible since that would include internal consciousness (such as pH balances and glucose levels, which are both monitored on an unconscious level).
The implication of the location of our subconscious, if such a location exists, is mind boggling, and yet another aspect that I never discussed or even thought of when defining what it is. This may seem completely unrelated but in the papers I have read I have not read another reference to the location of the unconscious. Does this mean that it is assumed to be in the brain or that researchers simply have not addressed the issue? All of our extremities and sections are mapped out on the lobes of our brain showing where the information is located, but in none of those images was the unconscious mapped (neither was any other non-physical actions such as conscience and emotions). If something as signifying as location is not scientifically supported then how can anything else be? If they do not know where it is, how can researchers test its capabilities and address the actions performed? The quick answer is that they cannot.
Dr. C.S. Shah states: “… certain acts are performed reflexively or without conscious awareness. For instance, mind goes on thinking bad thoughts despite attempts to control them. From where such thought as of anger, lust, jealousy, hatred, and even desire to harm others, come? … They arise from the subconscious mind. Subconscious mind is the sum total of our past experiences. What we feel, think, or do forms the basis of our experiences.” This definition adds that emotions can also be felt on a subconscious level. In my initial definition only physical feelings and actions were accounted for (such as not feeling the chair you’re sitting on beneath you). This incorporation adds a whole other layer of complexity since it suggests that your emotions are not under your direct control, but under the control of your subconscious. This invalidates that emotions deserve their own location in our brain, instead putting them all under the umbrella of the subconscious. This theory has some complications since many, possibly most, people will attest that when they are angry, they are angry on a conscious level. It is a feedback loop to think of emotions as subconscious because you cannot accept or deny their existence. After all if you feel the emotion it is on a conscious level, if you do not feel the emotion how are you going to indicate to the fact that you felt an emotion subconsciously; it terminates the emotion on a subconscious level and brings it to the conscious. That being said, how can you test or study emotions on a subconscious level? The subjects cannot tell you what they are feeling subconsciously and you cannot study them internally (since we are unaware of their location). It seems like an unending cycle that will never be resolved because the necessity of something to start somewhere (bringing to mind the cliché – which came first, the chicken or the egg?)
According to Britannica Online Encyclopedia subconscious (also referred to as unconscious) is “the complex of mental activities within an individual that proceed without his awareness… such unconscious processes may affect a person’s behavior even though he cannot report on them.” This brings the addition that although we cannot control our subconscious; it has some influence over our behaviors and actions. This does not seem very farfetched when you think of intuition or feelings that you have about people or in a location. Many people say they have a bad feeling about a person or place, which seems to be a result of the subconscious. Many law enforcement agencies tell their workers to “listen to your gut”. It seems that you are not really listening to your gut but your subconscious awareness of your environment and the people present in that environment. This is a plausible assumption when thought out, yet it is still bases solely on theory and possibilities rather than scientific data.
Another issue that was problematic was the insinuation that our subconscious has more power over us than we are aware of. It is something that should be further looked into to fully define what the subconscious is and to put boundaries on the areas that the subconscious is responsible for. Having a clear issue of what is affected by our subconscious would offer insights on the different aspects controlled, partially or completely, and therefore where it may be located and/or controlled more.
According to the excerpts I have discussed integrated with my own opinion the definition of subconscious would read along the lines of: it is something that you are unaware of doing/feeling/acting but can affect your behavior, this includes on an emotional level. It is also memory based, meaning that it is just giving you instructions based on past memories and experiences. The subconscious is also located in the brain. Many of these theories are only theories since there seems to be a limited amount of information on scientific data on the subconscious. These excerpts are merely supposition from the authors and not supported by data, though the ideas correlate and make sense when thought of in relation to everything already discussed throughout our coursework. This happens to be one of the issues encountered since so many assumptions are made and held as truth. The fact they may seem logical and sound reasonable does not make it fact, as many things are purported to be.
The subconscious shows just how subjective some areas of neurobiology can be; especially compared to more researched, concrete ideas. The subconscious is a well discussed aspect of psychology with Freud, Wilhelm Wundt, and C.G. Jung were all referenced in Britannica while there was not a single biologist referenced, nor are many physical aspects of the subconscious discussed. Many of the opinions I have of the subconscious is psychology based, even though I am a biology major and plan to have a future in the field of neurobiology. Certain aspects that are held on assumptions should be researched and have a firm scientific foundation and not be completely subjective. This makes me question the other concepts that are well known “facts”, since that is what the subconscious is considered.
“unconscious.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 13 Apr. 2009 <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/614101/unconscious>.
John Highman. “Our Subconscious Actions.” Time and Energy- Business Solutions. <http://www.timeandenergy.com.au>
Dr. C.S. Shah. “Tackling the Subconscious Mind.” <http://www.geocities.com/neovednta/a30.html?20099>