Subconscious, re-branded

21 May
May 21, 2013

My favourite bit of being science journalist is that you get to ask some of life’s most fascinating questions, but without having to do the hard work of actually finding the answers. One thing that often amuses me, though, is that when you talk to the scientists studying these big, fascinating questions, they rarely use the same words to describe them that everyone else does.

Human pheromones, for example, are a perfectly respectable thing to study – and even to talk to journalists about, but only if you call them, and make the journalist promise to call them, something vague and uninteresting like ‘social chemosensory messages’ (see this feature I wrote back in 2008).

Likewise the ‘subconscious mind’. When I started researching the power of the unconscious for part of New Scientist’s consciousness special (out this week), it only took one or two phone calls to discover that proper scientists don’t call it the subconscious, and certainly don’t talk about “the subconscious mind”. They prefer to talk about ‘unconscious, preconscious or non-conscious processes’. OK, so it sounds like a boring and pointless distinction, but once I’d rolled my eyes at what seemed to be another example of scientific political correctness I realised that renaming ‘the subconscious’ takes it out of the realms of Freudian mystery and into proper science.

All the research I came across suggests that there is nothing magical about ‘the subconscious’. Just like the conscious thoughts we are aware of, they are the result of neurons firing in response to our life experience and the people and things around us. Plenty of mysteries do remain, though. What makes some things tip over into awareness while others just stay just out of reach? How does the brain consciously use information that we have taken in unconsciously? What happens when there is a disconnect between what we consciously think we want and what we have unconsciously already decided? And if we could find the ‘switch’ that pushes a stimulus into conscious awareness, might there be a way to awaken people trapped in a minimally-conscious state?

Clearly, it’ll be some time before there are definite answers to these questions. In the mean time I think I’ll choose to think of my unconscious thoughts as a very helpful division of labour – just another part of me, going about its business in a different way, and often choosing not to bother me with the details. Which is fine.  I’ve got enough to think about.

Also see…