In Western medicine we separate the study of the physical brain, neurology, from the study of the mind, psychiatry. There is some overlap between the two disciplines, but they are distinctly separate. Today we will discuss one way of conceptualizing the thinking mind. We are unaware of many of the decisions, actions and reactions that occur without conscious thought because of how our mind works. This isn’t a problem unless our behavior is making us unsafe, unhealthy or unhappy.
An example will help to illustrate the interaction between the conscious and subconscious mind. When we first learn to drive we have to think about every action we take. We are competent drivers only when we pay conscious attention to what we’re doing. Once we’ve been driving for many years, our mind offloads much of the work of driving safely to our subconscious mind. We become subconsciously competent at driving. This frees up much of our conscious mind for other tasks.
Sometimes we develop bad habits which become ingrained in our subconscious mind. If we aren’t fully consciously engaged, we behave in ways that are unsafe or unhealthy. Another driving example would be following too closely, especially during inclement weather. With regard to food, some examples would be: mindlessly eating popcorn during a movie or eating more than we should while conversing with our spouse at dinnertime. I’m sure you can think of other examples in your own life.
When we develop bad habits and hold onto them long enough to make them subconscious habits, we must use conscious thinking to overcome them. We call this mindfulness. Adults can and do change their behavior when they pay conscious attention to the habit they wish to change. Retraining our subconscious mind into a new pattern of behavior takes time and persistence. Mindful eating is a topic worthy of an entire blog of its own and will be addressed more fully in a future article.
Our self-image is a powerful force when we attempt to change our pattern of behavior. If we believe we are not capable of change, our self-image will guide our subconscious mind toward failure. Believing we are capable of change is no guarantee of success, but believing that we aren’t capable almost always leads to failure. Success leads to improved self-image, which in turn makes future success more likely. This is why setting and achieving small goals along the path to a larger goal is so valuable.