Posts Tagged ‘Unconscious mind’

Predict the Future

January 12, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Diana Kwon in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This blog post taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborates on this idea.

Every moment the brain takes in an enormous amount of information, more than it can process on the fly.  To cope effectively with this enormous amount of information, the brain constantly makes predictions that it tests by comparing incoming data against information.  And most of this is done via unconscious processing.

Just imagining the future is enough to put the brain in motion.  Imaging studies have shown that when a sound or image begin to appear, the brain generates an anticipatory signal in the sensory cortex.

The brain is continuously predicting the sounds, words, and meanings that we are trying to produce or communicate..

Moreover, the senses are used to inform each other.  When a recording of speech is degraded so that it is nearly unintelligible, the words sound clearer if you have previously read the same words in subtitles.  Matt Davis at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, says that “the sensory parts of the brain are comparing the speech we’ve heard to the speech we’ve predicted.”

Our brains also make predictions on the basis of emotional signals coming from our bodies.  Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist at Bar-Han University in Israel, suggests that we only consciously recognize an object once our unconscious mind has calculated its importance based on what our senses and emotional reactions our saying.  For example, the conscious fear of a snake on a hiking trail comes after the brain has processed the shape and initiated jumping out of the way.

There are downsides to making predictions. Incorrect inferences reinforced by repetition can be hard to reverse.  Stereotyping is an even more troublesome example of the same thing.  When it comes to human interactions it can lead to negative biases and discrimination.  Bar says that “stereotypes and prejudices are predictions working as they do with everything else, but in a way that is not desirable.”  Some neuroscientists also believe that the hallucinations experienced in psychosis are the result of expectations gone awry.  Despite its flaws predictions are necessary.  Otherwise our species never would have survived.

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Think While You Sleep

January 10, 2017

HM works from his iPAD.  This is the print title of an article by Simon Makin in the October 1 issue of the New Scientist.  The healthy memory blog has stressed the importance of the unconscious mind and provided suggestions as to how to make use of your unconscious mind.  This and the following blog posts taken from this issue of the New Scientist elaborate on these ideas.  This first post reviews a study done in 1999.  A team at the University of Libek in Germany put 15 volunteers to bed at midnight.  The team either told the participants they would wake them at 9 am and did, or told them they would wake them at 9 am, but actually woke them at 6 am, or said they would wake them at 6 am and did.

The last group had a measurable rise in the stress hormone adrenocorticotropin from 4:30 am, that peaked around 6 am, when these participants were told they would be awakened.  The participants woken unexpectedly at 6 am had no such peak.  The researchers concluded  that the unconscious mind can not only keep track of time while we sleep, but also set a biological alarm to jump-start the king process.

A 2014 study by Sid Koulder of the Ecole Normale Superireure in Paris and his colleagues found that the sleeping brain can also process language.  They trained participants to push a button with their left or right hand to indicate whether they heard the name of an animal or object as they fell asleep.  They monitored the brain’s electrical activity  during training and when the participants heard the same words when asleep.   Activity continued in the brain’s motor regions even when asleep, indicating that the sleepers were preparing to push the correct button.  The participants could also correctly categorize new words first heard after they had dropped off to sleep, indicating that they were genuinely analyzing the meaning of the words while asleep.

A more recent study found that while language processing continues in REM sleep for words heard just before bed, once in deep sleep all responses disappear as the brain goes “offline” to allow the day’s memories to be processed.  Boulder says that “your cognition about things in the environment  declines progressively towards deep sleep.  Sleep is not all-or-none in terms of cognition, it’s all-or-none in terms of consciousness.”

The Relevance of Consciousness and the Brain to a Healthy Memory

April 9, 2016

I hope it is already clear why the previous eight posts have been devoted to Stanislas Dehaene’s “Consciousness and the Brain:  Deciphering How the Brain Codes our Thoughts,” but, nevertheless, I shall briefly elaborate here.  Simply put, using our conscious mind effectively is key to a healthy memory.  One of the primary goals of meditation (for example, the relaxation response), is to gain control of our attention rather than either ignoring our brains’s potential, or letting our brains run wild.

Growth mindsets encourage us to use the global workspace of our brains, to think and to learn new information and skills.  This activates those neurons in the prefrontal cortex with the long axons reaching far into different parts of the brains.  I strongly believe that this activity strongly promotes brain health.  It is likely that it is largely responsible for the cognitive reserve that is cited as the reason that the autopsies of many individuals reveal the neurillary fibers and amyloid plaques that provide a definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, yet these individuals never indicated any of the behavioral or cognitive symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

It is clear that there is enormous activity of the brain, but we can gain access to only a small percentage of this activity.  So how can we increase the probability that our unconscious minds are functioning productively?  A good way of thinking about this is that our conscious mind is, or should be, the chief executive of our brain.  Think of the brain as an enormous enterprise that we supervise.  The unconscious mind uses what we think about consciously as a guide to at least some of its unconscious activity.  A good example of this is when we try to remember a name  or a word, but successful retrieval fails (remember the distinction between available and accessible memories).  It is not unusual that many hours, sometimes even a day a more later, the desired item pops into consciousness.  So even though you gave up trying to remember, your unconscious brain kept working on this task.  My favorite problem solving technique is incubation.  This is done when you give your mind a rest and stop working on the problem.  Although your conscious mind has stopped working, your unconscious mind perseveres, and the solution seems to pop into your mind unsummoned.  There are documented cases of important discoveries that have been made in this manner.  Thee are probably many more that have not been discovered or articulated.

So meditate to achieve better control over your consciousness.  Also pursue a growth mindset.  Review previously acquired knowledge and continue to pursue new knowledge.  Also give your unconscious mind something to mull over, such as a problem to solve, or an apparently lost memory to recover.  As was mentioned in a previous healthy memory blog post, with the exception of the most trivial decisions, it is best to allow time for your conscious mind to run simulations and reveal unrecognized problems (see the healthy memory blog post, “Let Me Think it Over).

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Engaging Change: Transform Yourself

February 9, 2016

Element 5 of “The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking,” is what Drs. Burger and Starboard term the  Quintessential Element.  This fifth element is telling us to just do it.  Apply the first four elements.  Reading the book is not enough, we must work at changing our habits.

I would like to add some personal notes here.  As you can easily tell from the preceding posts, that I value this book highly and urge you to read it, engage change and transform yourself.

If I had one criticism of this book it would be the title.  I object to the article “The” in the title.  There are more than these five elements to effective thinking.  I would further argue that if you apply the elements in this book to thinking, you will likely find them.

I find myself engaged in several lines of inquiry at one time.  I must apply these elements to each line of inquiry as well as thinking across lines of inquiry.  We all have limited cognitive resources, so there is only so much we can do during a given time frame.  So we must all prioritize our efforts.  This is constantly a limitation, which is frustrating.  But the mental activity is enjoyable and fulfilling.  And it builds growth mindsets.

I would also remind you that much thinking takes place in your non conscious  or unconscious mind.  After you have engaged in the exercises described in the elements of effective thinking and ceased to think consciously about them, your unconscious mind will continue to work on the problemss.  You might well find solutions popping into your mind that are presumably unsummoned.  To read more about these processes enter “unconscious” in the healthy memory blog search box.

I also encourage you to read healthymrmory blog posts bearing on critical thinking (enter “critical thinking” into the healthy memory blog search block).

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Brain Conversations

November 6, 2011

For most lay people, consciousness is psychology. It is how we deal with the world. These people would be surprised to learn that for many psychologists and philosophers, consciousness is an epiphenomenon, meaning that it is not real. They would argue that we do experience consciousness but that it is a byproduct of cognitive processes that have already occurred at an unconscious level. In other words, consciousness is just along for the ride. Articles1 in a recent Scientific American Mind present this view.

Although it is true that the vast majority of cognitive processing does occur below the level of consciousness, does that mean that consciousness is irrelevant? The purpose of consciousness has been and continues to be a hotly discussed topic. Baumeister has provided perhaps the most compelling explanations of the purpose of consciousness. He argues that conscious thought is for internal processing that facilitates downstream interaction with the social and cultural environment. Consciousness enables the construction of meaningful, sequential thought. These constructions are found in sentences and narratives, logical reasoning, quantification, causal understanding, and narratives. In short, it accounts for intellectual and social life. It is used for the simulation of events. (See the Healthymemory Blog Post, “Conscious Thought”)

An article2 written for a different purpose provides support for Baumeister’s ideas. This article dealt with awareness. This topic is important in the context of trying to diagnose patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state. Misdiagnosis rates here can be as high as 40 percent. A neural correlate for consciousness is much needed. For many years theorists thought that the prefrontal cortex was key and that neural thoughts that reached this area emerged from unconscious obscurity into awareness. However, new research supports the notion that consciousness is a conversation rather than a revelation, and that no single brain structure leads the dialogue.

The neuroscientist Simon van Gaal conducts experiments in which he asks participants to push a button every time they see a certain symbol flash on a screen, except when they see a different symbol that means “stop.” On some trials the stop signal is presented below the level of conscious awareness. Although participants do not see the stop signal, they do hesitate to push the button as though some part of the brain perceived the information. Brain activity is recorded during the experiment via functional MRI and electroencephalography (EEG). The unconsciousness inhibitory signal seems to make it all the way up to parts of the prefrontal cortex despite the participants not being consciously aware of the signal.

Another study supports the claim that awareness emerges when information travels back and forth between brain areas rather than from an ascending linear chain. EEG signals were recorded in patients with brain damage as they listened to stimulating tones. All the patients were awake and alert but exhibited different levels of responsiveness. Mathematical models derived from the data suggest that feedback between the frontal cortex and lower-level sensory areas are crucial to producing conscious awareness. Similar results have been obtained with monkeys and healthy human participants.

Although these studies do not prove Baumeister’s notions regarding the role of consciousness, they do seem to provide supportive evidence.

1Nichols, S. (2011). Is Free Will an Illusion? Scientific American Mind, November/December, 18-19.

and

Koch, C. (2011). Probing the Unconscious Mind, Scientific American Mind, November/December,, 20-21.

2Peck, M.E. (2011). A Conversation in the Brain. Scientific American Mind, November/December, 12.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

What is Incubation?

October 17, 2010

Let me be more specific, the question is what is incubation in the context of creativity or unconscious thought. The French mathematician Henri Poincare developed a four stage model of the creative process based on his own introspections regarding how he made his mathematical discoveries. Here are the four stages:

  1. He put in a great deal of conscious work until he became stuck and put the problem aside.
  2. At this point his unconscious took over. His unconscious worked beneath the surface. This is incubation
  3. The solution emerged into consciousness.
  4. At this point he checked the solution and found that it was correct.

Some psychologists debunk this theory because they have been unable to replicate it in their laboratories. Unfortunately, the vast majority of psychological research is done with college students. Moreover, the duration of an experiment is typically only one or two hours—sometimes even less. This reminds me of when I was a graduate student. At that time there was debate about whether we could control our own autonomic nervous systems. For example, could we learn how to control our heart rate (apart from running to increase it)? Most psychologists argued that we could not control our autonomic nervous systems based on short term studies with college students. The fact that Hindu mystics, among others, had already demonstrated a phenomenal capacity to control their autonomic nervous systems and alter their heart rates was ignored. The same situation seems to be prevailing with respect to creativity. The four stage model introduced by Poincare has been confirmed with a variety of creative individuals.

I certainly am no genius, but I have experienced incubation, most often when I am trying to recall a name, event, or vocabulary word. After a prolonged period of failure in which I was unable to recall what I wanted, hours, sometimes days, later the answer pops to mind.

Today it is generally believed that the vast majority of mental activity occurs below the level of conscious awareness, so it is not surprising that these efforts continue after your conscious mind moves on to something else. The implication is that you can continue to exercise your mind after you consciously abandon the exercise. The important part is that you need to start thinking about something. Incubation does not occur without an initial conscious effort.

That is why the Healthymemory Blog encourages you to try to remember things that you think you know, but that you cannot quite recall. This initiates the use of memory circuits that have been inactive for long periods of time. Trying to remember these items reactivates them. This reactivation should continue after you have abandoned your conscious attempt to recall the information. If it has not popped into memory after several days, retry your conscious attempts. If there is still no recall after days, then take recourse to transactive memory and attempt to look up the information.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2010. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.