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Differences between the Conscious and Subconscious Mind

What are they? In our culture, they are constructs for how the mind works... But are they completely distinct or two sides of the same coin?

“What do the conscious mind and the subconscious mind have in common?” Answer: “neither refers to a specific area of the brain”…. So what are they? A commonly used metaphor is the iceberg one, with the conscious mind being the part above water, and the subconscious mind represented by the submerged part. Or, if the mind were a spectrum, at the end of the conscious side we would find the hyper alert state and at the end of the subconscious (also known as unconscious) side would be deep sleep, with the everyday alert state in the middle. But these are rather unsophisticated analogies….

Essentially, the conscious and the subconscious are considered, in our culture at least, to be constructs for how the mind works. So, what do these conscious and subconscious minds, as referred to in hypnotherapy, actually do? And are they completely distinct or two sides of the same coin?

The conscious mind is the part we are most aware of. It evaluates information, is in charge of reasoning, makes judgements and has free will to act or not. It can perform around 7 tasks at one time and processes up to 40 environmental stimuli per second. However, some views consider that it represents only 5% of our mind processing and that it has a limited ability to focus (“can you feel the clothes on your skin right now”?) The conscious mind also has a gatekeeper function, rejecting what doesn’t fit our existing belief system (“confirmation bias, anyone”?) This means it can be quite fixed, and may even have developed unhelpful defences along the way. All of this might end up becoming quite a hindrance when we are attempting to change ourselves….

The subconscious mind is the part that is mostly below our level of awareness. It contains all our memories, learning, emotions, dreams, values, beliefs, reflexes and involuntary actions. It is an immensely powerful processor: 100,000 chemical reactions per cell, and 20 million environmental stimuli per second processed. Yet, it accepts every piece of information sent by the conscious mind, clear or not, good or bad, as it is unable to tell the difference. Freud theorised about the various layers of the mind, Jung separated personal unconscious and collective unconscious, and Coué favoured self-suggestion and the superior power of imagination over reason, but whichever approach you prefer, is there a process that bridges the conscious and the subconscious minds?

The critical factor is supposed to act as a filter between the two, stopping bad messages being processed by the subconscious and consigned to memory. However, if it is overwhelmed, it can get stuck, or breaks down and activates the fight or flight response instead, causing a hyper-suggestible state. And if the message was unhealthy after all, it ends up being accepted by the non-analytical subconscious mind as being ‘good’ information (as in information that is true). And this can cause many issues…

You might believe that our logical and analytical conscious mind is the best tool to take control of our decisions, but your hypnotherapist might suggest that quietening it and engaging the more intuitive and creative subconscious mind instead, could be a much more effective way to create positive and lasting change. After all, the subconscious mind is always open to suggestions on how to improve your life!

Maybe the best analogy would be that of a computer… the conscious mind is what you see on the screen. The subconscious mind is the programs, the data stores, the software… and everything else!

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