Just Seven Things

Exploring why and how we do what we do, and how we can do it better

Unconscious Thought Theory: Relaxing into Yourself

The conscious mind can only focus on 7 things (+/-2). The study from the ’50s that supported this is the start point for this blog and a lot of my thinking since. What happens for the rest of the time? Claxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind expands and develops this thinking with intelligent theories. Richard Wiseman’s 59 Seconds draws out a few psychological studies that sheds light on some of the functions underlying ‘what happens the rest of the time’: the ‘what?’.

First, in an exploration on creativity, he quotes a study by psychologists Dijksterhuis and Meurs:

‘Their ideas about the nature of the unconscious mind and creativity are simple to understand. Imagine two men in a room. One of them is highly creative, but very shy. The other is clever, not as creative and far more domineering. Now imagine going into a room and asking them to come up with ideas for a campaign to advertise a new type of chocolate bar. True to form, the loud but not especially creative man dominates the conversation. He does not allow his quieter counterpart to contribute, and the ideas are good but not very innovative.

Now let’s imagine a slightly different scenario. Again, you walk into the room and ask for campaign ideas. However, this time you distract the loud man by getting him to watch a film. Under these circumstances, the quiet man is able to make his voice heard, and you walk away with a completely different, and far more creative, set of ideas.

In many ways this is a good analogy for the relationship between your mind and creativity’

They tested this theory by assessing creativity of different sets of test subjects. An exercise was used to come up with creative solutions to a problem – which could be simply assessed for their degrees of creativity. The people given the challenge and then consciously distracted by being asked to follow a dot around a screen before coming up with ideas at the last minute were judged to have more creative solutions than those given the challenge and left alone to brainstorm. The reason? The loud man was given a film to watch.

In Wiseman’s book, a later chapter on decision making again shows more functions of the unconscious. ‘When having to decide between options that only differ in one or two ways, your conscious mind is very good at studying the situation in a rational, level headed fashion and deciding on the best course of action’ …..however….’instead of looking at the situation as a whole, the conscious mind tends to focus on the most obvious elements and, in doing so, can miss the bigger picture. In contrast, your unconscious mind is much better at dealing with complex decisions that pervade many aspects of our lives. Given time, it slowly works through all the factors, and eventually provides a more balanced decision’

Again, testing by Dijksterhuis and van Olden had people in batches choose pictures they liked. One team had to deliberate with reasoned lists. Another make a snap decision. A third, look at the posters, then solve difficult anagrams. They are then shown the posters again and choose. At the time the ‘reasoned list’ people were surveyed as happiest with their choice. Four weeks later, the anagram people were far more happy.

The conclusion: ‘it is all a question of knowing what needs to be decided, then distracting your conscious mind and allowing your unconscious to work away’

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