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This neuroscientist is figuring out how to harness the enormous potential of the unconscious mind

You've literally never even thought about it.

DAVID NIELD
18 MAR 2016
 

Our brains are wonderful things, capable of storing as much information as the entire Internet and guiding everything we do, think, and say, but what you might not realise is just how powerful the unconscious part of the brain is – the area that handles actions and other neurological data that we don't even think about.

Are you consciously telling your brain to jump from word to word in this sentence? Of course you aren't, and that's the beauty of the unconscious brain in action. BBC Future's Chris Baraniuk has been investigating the science of the unconscious brain and how much we rely on it, and says there could be ways of harnessing its enormous power.

 

First off, consider the cup-stacking exercise in the video below. Champion cup stackers (yes they really do exist) run through their routines almost automatically, having internalised all the necessary actions. In the video, you'll see that brain scans of 10-year-old record-breaking cup stacker, Austin Naber, show his brain is barely taxed during the routine, whereas for you or I, it would be working flat-out.

This same kind of unconscious processing comes into play when we're on the football field, trying to complete a long sum, deciding on our political views, or even figuring out how attracted we are to someone of the opposite sex.

"There is debate in the field about whether consciousness even has efficacy," says American neuroscientist David Eagleman, who recently completed a documentary series about the influence of the unconscious mind. "By the time your conscious mind registers something, is it always just the last guy to get the news, and it doesn't even matter what it thinks?"

Eagleman thinks the unconscious operations the brain handles for us are more important than science often gives them credit for. If we can understand more about how our minds are working beyond the realm of what we're consciously thinking about, that might help us treat addiction and improve performance, for example.

Chris Baraniuk points to several examples of the unconscious mind in action: our instant reaction to road signs, for instance, and the verbal cues used by advertisers in their marketing campaigns.

We often react to a certain image or a certain word on a deeper level without having to engage the conscious parts of our brain, and it's this kind of 'power' Eagleman is talking about in his research. It's still at an early, unpublished stage, but it promises to uncover more about what goes on below the surface of our minds.

"The conscious you, which is the part that flickers to life when you wake up in the morning, is the smallest bit of what’s happening in your head," says Eagleman. "It's like a broom closet in the mansion of the brain."

Eagleman is also interested in figuring out if humans can master new senses. Right now, we can perceive less than a ten-trillionth of all light waves. "Our experience of reality," he says in the TED talk below, "is constrained by our biology." His research into brain processes suggest that we could develop new interfaces to help us take in information that our bodies can't usually cope with. Check out his talk:

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