I’m always drawn back to the drawing of the iceberg in my first year psychology text book. The iceberg was a representation of ourselves, where only a small percentage peaks above the water line. The unconscious mind plays such a pervasive yet hidden role in our lives. Within it is hidden who we are as an individual and as a species. Like many psychologists, I’m drawn to the study of the unconscious world because it reveals our humanity, how we truly think and what makes us tick.

Due to its very nature, it is misunderstood and unexplored. How we think about our unconscious mind has also changed over time, from the dark, sexually violent subconscious of Freud to our more friendly ‘normal part of us’ re-branding we have today.

Before Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), the study of the brain was only possible when somebody lost part of their brain due to illness or an accident. The loss of cognitive functions revealed the function. This was a very slow research process. Since MRI and PET scans, neurological research is increasing exponentially.

MRI is particularly helpful as it allows for the study of the brain in real time. The lighted structures of the brain appear just like fireworks would in the night sky, flashing on and off indicating the parts of the active brain.

Although the images don’t indicate a specific thought, we can imply meaning through stimulus-response experimentation.
We believe our consciousness may be found somewhere in the pre-frontal cortex. This is the area directly behind the forehead. This appears to the the last point the brain is active, indicating to the researchers that this is either where the decision takes place or one is awareness of a decision being made – either falls within the parameters of what we understand to be consciousness.

However, our quest to find ourselves does not stop with the conscious mind. Our consciousness is only a surface glimmer at who we truly are. Just as Freud believed, our conscious mind represents the only tip of the iceberg. We have to venture into our hidden world, that of unconscious thought. The MRI changed the world of subliminal research.

The origins of thought

The study of the decision-making process through MRI reveals that while the final decision or awareness is located in the pre-frontal cortex behind the forehead, the process starts at the opposite site of the brain, the Ventral Pallidum. It is here where the neurons on an MRI first reveal activity. The thought flows to the pre-frontal cortex like a firecracker through the forebrain.

Thus, the origin of thought to take place at the very origin of the brain itself – our earlier, reptilian brain. Our brains did not evolve higher conscious functioning through changing what was originally there, but newer parts of the brain evolved through our evolution. Higher cognitive thought and our consciousness is a recent development.

The reptilian brain not only governs the unconscious processes, but it prepares the body to fight or flight by secreting appropriate hormones. In situations where a quick response is needed, this part of the brain takes control by bypassing the areas of the brain associated with higher cognitive functioning. Think about when you last avoided being scalded by a hot oven, or sprung your hand away from a sharp surface to escape injury. Its instinctual, its unconscious – it is your reptilian brain at work. With no time to dally, the response is quicker working through a loop of unconscious pathways to get your hand out of danger.

The unconscious decision-making process is an automatic one, controlling the basic survival functions like heart rate, digestion and breathing. We evolved this way so that we can concern ourselves consciously with the more analytical decision making like problem solving, planning and evaluation.

Where worlds collide

Think about when you last popped into the shops on the way home from work to pick up dinner. You may believe that have the free will to choose whatever you like. In reality, the thought emerges from your brain stem, and your unconscious mind. Having identified the nutrients your body is lacking, you will be primed towards a limited decision set. You might consciously think to yourself, “Oh, I’m in the mood for…” but this thought may likely have rocketed up from your unconscious. As you approach the shelf, an virtually unlimited number of concepts will be fired back and forth between your unconscious and conscious mind. You may process recent advertising, make unconscious evaluations about the lighting in the shop aisle, those around you, the pricing and the packaging. You may have made the decision on your free will, but what portion of that free will was exercised unconsciously?

This question is also on the minds (if you will excuse the pun) of neurological researchers. MRI studies cannot distinguish between conscious and unconscious thought processes. Not only to they look the same on an MRI, they use the same neural pathways. The picture is muddied still because research has found the thoughts to behave in the same way too. Whether thoughts are triggered consciously or unconsciously (subliminally triggered) they exhibited identical drive behaviour, intensity and persistence.

Psychologically speaking, the boundary line between conscious and subconscious thought process is similarly impossible to draw as to some degree this line is largely a function of awareness and attention.

Unconscious priming

Priming is the process whereby unconscious thoughts are triggered guiding our conscious through. Priming does not equate to mind control (as conscious decisions remain in the purview of the conscious mind). Rather priming brings certain ideas to the fore, forms the structure of decision sets and raises awareness. In the political world, priming can be thought of as a slick talking Washington Lobbies waiting at the doors of true political power.

The reason behind the success of priming as a self-help technique lies in the fact that all thoughts operate in the same way. Though it is very difficult to trigger a conscious thought through priming, through repetition, these thoughts can be triggered through subliminal messages, but but once in motion, these semantic phrasings work no differently than the subjects own conscious or unconscious thoughts.

MRI studies support the above in revealing the mechanics of subliminal priming. It is the Ventral Pallidum which reacts to subliminal audio. The brain is stimulated as if the thoughts were our own.

Our unconscious selves

This is not easy to digest. Its not comfortable knowing that who we truly know ourselves to be is settled within a quick fire dance between conscious and unconscious thought process. We are not in conscious control. We don’t really have conscious control (in the traditional sense) of what we choose for dinner, what clothes we will be wearing tomorrow, who we are friends with or what we decide to do as a career. In fact, the idea is patently outrageous. Whether we consider ourselves to be acting out of pure free will or not depends entirely on how you define free will. Free will is still bound by the decision set presented by the unconscious thought process, whether natural or manipulated. Think back to the Sigmund Freud iceberg.

We are more than our conscious minds, and whether we regard free will as something which is unconscious strikes at the heart of who we really are, our humanity and what we can do to grow and change our lives for the better. Subliminal messaging is one way we can use the natural engineering within our brain for self-improvement, when we fully can take conscious control of our lives. By selecting what information our unconscious minds digests, we can begin to live the lives we truly desire.

Author's Bio: 

Ryan writes about the changing world of Psychology. He is also the owner of Subliminal Today, a company which provides subliminal mp3s to inspire uplift and develop human potential. You can find out more by joining in the discussion on facebook.com/subliminaltoday