The Conscious And Subconscious Mind

The human mind is a remarkable machine. It has been said that even sophisticated computers are years away from the capacity we have all been born with and often take for granted. There is much we don’t know. But it is generally believed (and can be supported by observation and logic) that there are two distinct facets to our mental processing. The conscious and the subconscious mind.

The first, conscious thought, is the ability to direct our brain to specific tasks and calculations. We can drive cars, catch and cook fish, watch and be entertained by a movie, all with deliberate intent. This is the area of the mind we are most aware of. We can watch it work as it figures out what it wants for dinner, then assembles a grocery list, goes to the store, buys ingredients, and prepares dinner. Our conscious mind is that little voice in our heads that won’t ever seem to shut up. He is admittedly handy to have around, but sometimes that guy gets on my nerves.

Our subconscious minds are working in the background. They make breathing happen, so you don’t have to think about it and handle digestion, so the conscious mind can relax and enjoy your movie. It monitors a trillion nerve endings and will wake you up and pump some adrenaline if it senses danger. Core beliefs and principles and even that nice feeling you get from the smell of fresh-baked cookies live in the subconscious mind. You don’t have to ‘think’ about these things. You just ‘know.’ Of course, the subconscious mind doesn’t really ‘know’ any universal truth, just your truths, even if they are wrong. For example, this is where habits live, even the bad ones.

The Rider, The Elephant & The Path

The Conscious and Subconscious Mind

There is an interesting metaphor for how we think, make decisions and introduce changes in our lives introduced by Jonathon Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis and expanded by Chip and Dan Heath in their book Switch that compares our minds to an elephant and a rider.

Think of our conscious brain as the rider. That is the voice in your head that chatters all the time. That’s the part of you that wants to make more money and spend a month traveling Europe. The elephant is your subconscious mind that’s just kind of down there working all the time. It is big and powerful and does all the real heavy lifting. This is also where all those ‘feelings’ come from.

An important part of this metaphor is the fact the rider is often directing the elephant. The rider says go here or go there, and the elephant will often comply. While the rider thinks he is in charge, the reality is the elephant is far more powerful and can’t be bullied into submission. If the elephant really wants to do or not the elephant is going to win.

Have you ever joined a gym, visited a few times, and then stopped going? Riders are good planners. Your rider knows you should lose a few pounds and get in shape, so it signs you up for a gym membership. The rider plans to get up early and hit the gym before work and sets the alarm nice and early. But the problem is the elephant likes that cozy warm bed and wants to keep you happy and safe right now.

The elephant doesn’t need a reason. It just doesn’t want to go, enough said. Elephants are not long-term thinkers. They are more about the here and now. Anytime you have hit that snooze button, that was your elephant unwilling to budge despite your rider’s best efforts. Yet, once again, it is the rider that wrestles with canceling the membership each month, going through the same analysis and concluding you really should go and choosing to continue the membership. Or is that just me?

The third element, the path, is an interesting concept. If the rider is directing the elephant to walk down a dangerous and difficult path, the elephant is more likely to resist, and the rider will be forcing the elephant to do something it does not want to do.

For example, doing your taxes is something the rider knows you have to do and intends to get them done early this year. But the elephant does not want to. Have you ever done your taxes in April? Have you ever not done your taxes in April? If there is an easy path, the rider is directing the elephant to follow, the elephant probably won’t put up much of a fuss. The path is the environment, and you can choose to make the path toward your life goals either easy or difficult. This might be like sending all your paperwork to a tax preparer and letting them do your taxes.

Imagine a goal of losing a few pounds. Keeping boxes of cookies in the cupboard is choosing a more difficult path for the elephant to follow. Your conscious brain, the rider, wants to lose a few pounds. The subconscious mind, your elephant, wants a cookie. In fact, it wants all the cookies. Have you ever torn the pantry apart looking for some chocolate? That’s the elephant.

If you want to live a certain way, have a good relationship, stay fit and healthy, advance your career, and save for the long term, then choose a path that makes that as easy as possible. For example, let’s say you want to start taking bike rides with your partner as a way to spend time together and get some exercise. Living near bike trails would make that routine much easier than a place that required a ten-minute drive to get to a safe trail.

The Rider Handles Critical Thinking

The rider is our conscious brain. It is where critical thinking (and often over-thinking) is taking place. It is this part of the brain that is focused on career choice, what to wear, and going to the gym. The rider is also in charge of any long-term planning. Do you want to get in shape? That’s the rider. Buying lots of salad ingredients? That’s the rider. Eating a pint of ice cream after your salad is all elephant.

It is our conscious brain that is doing the planning and prep work in designing the future. Making lists of goals, milestones, and action items are how riders roll. We assume our conscious thinking is in charge of everything, but it isn’t. The rider is concerned about resources:money, time and energy. The rider is concerned about managing these resources and finding balance in life. All of that rational thought and discussion in your head is the rider processing and planning.

Pretty much if you can hear that voice thinking about it, that’s your analytical side processing its options. You have pretty good control over the rider, except maybe getting it to just be quiet for a little while.

That said, the elephant is bigger and stronger and will want what it wants to be happy and safe. We’re going to need your analytical side to team up with your emotional side to develop better collaboration between what we think and how we feel.

The Elephant Manages Happiness & Meaning

The Subconscious Mind: Happiness & Meaning

The elephant just wants what it wants. It doesn’t chatter on incessantly like the rider does. Elephants are like big computers that run programs instinctively. Yes, I recognize this is a metaphor within a metaphor. But I’m claiming ‘creative license’ and doing it to help explain the concept.

Take breathing, for example. The subconscious mind knows you need oxygen, so it just runs the breathing program. If you start running, it turns up the speed to keep oxygen coming as needed. You don’t have to ‘think’ about it. In fact, sometimes, I start thinking about my own breathing, and it messes me up. Am I breathing enough? Too much? Before long, I’m dizzy and starting to feel anxious. Have you ever done that? These programs are like habits or disciplines and can have either a good or bad impact on your life.

Long ago, I smoked cigarettes. It was a habit. If I felt stress or anxiety and a cigarette might help, I would just light one up without even thinking (consciously). The elephant knew I liked it and just did it for me. The rider knew that smoking was bad for my health. But I liked it and wanted it, so the elephant ignored the rider and had my back. My conscious mind had to force the subconscious mind to break that habit, to reprogram the computer to a better way of living.

Quitting smoking is easy, and I had done it plenty of times. But for ten years, I always started up again. My last cigarette was the day before my daughter was born. The idea of her growing up without her father created a profound feeling of sadness. Quitting this time was surprisingly easy and permanent. Your subconscious mind is capable of changing old habits and creating new ones. This creates an amazing opportunity to change the way our worlds function.

What if you design a few new habits that enhance your life? They would seem like work at first. But in time, they become routine. You can teach your subconscious mind to run programs that enhance the most important dimensions in your life.

Just because the elephant feels it doesn’t mean it is knowledge or wisdom or at all accurate. My smoking was what I trained my elephant to do, and my rider trained it to stop by embracing the consequence of what might happen in the lives of my family if I continued smoking.

In order to create the life you imagine for yourself, you must be self-aware enough to help the different sides of your brain work together. The elephant is the real powerhouse of processing, and if the elephant understands the kind of happiness you are trying to craft, your chances of creating your dream life are vastly greater than if you are counting on the rider to muscle the beast down a path it does not want to go.

Take an emergency fund as an example. Financial advisors commonly say you should have six months of money readily available in case you face some misfortune. Most people don’t have an emergency fund. How would it ‘feel’ to have six months of cash available in case you had some hardship? Elephants process feelings. Would you feel safer? More stable, confident, and secure? How would it ‘feel’ to live paycheck to paycheck and have nothing available for even a minor mishap? By thinking and feeling about how you want to prioritize your life around your values, you are helping the rider communicate with the elephant about your intentions.

The Power Of Collaboration

An understanding of how your own mind works can be empowering. Recognizing that you are not simply your conscious mind and that your brain is a pretty remarkable tool is a good place to start. Your mind is a tool you have been given to play this game. One body, one mind, and some limited resources; make the most of it.

Discipline is hard, especially for the under-disciplined. What if you were to break one bad habit and add one good one? What would the compound effect of making changes in how you live on the day to day be over the next 10, 20, or 40 years? The future is coming, I can assure you.

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