Leave Life-Changing Decisions to Your Unconscious Mind

By Johnjoe McFadden in Research on August 21st, 2006 / 4 Comments

The evidence seems to be that the conscious mind isn’t much use in making hard decisions.

Do you really need that flat-pack wardrobe or would the foldaway futon be a better buy? Why not have lunch and think about it? Then you might need to choose between pickled herring or Swedish meatballs. Everywhere we are confronted with difficult choices. In Luke Rhinehart’s novel The Dice Man, the eponymous hero makes all his decisions by rolling a dice.

Few of us would trust to a life ruled by chance, so we tend to think carefully about the complex decisions (the wardrobe or the futon) but are content to trust our instincts with the simpler things (meatballs or herring). New research by Ap Dijksterhuis and his colleagues at the University of Amsterdam suggests that we would be better off thinking about the simple choices, and leaving the life-changing decisions to our unconscious mind.

Dijksterhuis asked his test subjects to choose between four hypothetical cars on the basis of a set of specifications (whether the car had a sunroof, low mileage, etc) that could be either simple (only four specifications) or complex (12 specifications). One group was given four minutes to consider the problem; the other group was shown the specification and then immediately distracted by another task. Surprisingly, the subjects with plenty of time to think fared better when faced with a simple decision (four specifications) but worse when the problem was more complex (12 specifications).

This and other similar experiments go to the heart of the vexing question of whether consciousness is any use to us. Our brain seems to be split between the actions we can take with little or no conscious control (although scientists prefer to talk about “attention”), such as riding a bike, and those that require conscious attention, such as arithmetic. We tend to think of our unconscious mind as the more primitive arm of cognition, with consciousness in reserve for the hard problems. But Dijksterhuis’s research suggests we have it the wrong way around.

If our conscious mind isn’t much use for making hard decisions, what is it good for? It may seem that our voluntary actions are driven by consciousness, but many scientists believe this is an illusion. Nearly a century ago the evolutionary biologist Thomas Huxley argued that consciousness has no more influence on our actions than a steam whistle has on the locomotion of a train.

This view was boosted in recent years by the neurobiologist Benjamin Libet at the University of California. In an experiment he asked subjects to perform a simple task, eg wiggle their little finger, at a time of their own choosing, and measured accompanying brain activity. Surprisingly, Libet could detect brain activity that predicted imminent finger wiggling nearly half a second before the subjects were aware they had decided to wiggle their finger!

Libet’s experiments suggested that our brain makes up its mind long (in neurobiological terms) before we become aware of any conscious intention to act. Consciousness seems to be a mere bystander with just an illusion of control. Where does this leave free will or personal responsibility?

Dijksterhuis points out that consciousness is good at following precise rules – arithmetic, solving anagrams, etc – but has only limited capacity for handling more complex problems. He proposes the “deliberation without attention” hypothesis, whereby complex problems are best solved by the parallel-computing capabilities of the unconscious mind. So bear this in mind the next time you need to choose between the flat-pack wardrobe and the futon: trust your instincts.

Johnjoe McFadden is professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey.

Republished with permission: Original article at the Guardian

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4 Responses to “Leave Life-Changing Decisions to Your Unconscious Mind”

  1. jaime Says:

    Thinking about this theory makes my mind feel like it is tied in knotts. For example: how does one differenciate the two? This artical uses simple examples, this makes it hard to apply to intense decision making. Im not too sure how this is all comming out; i dont mean to critisize these words. Whos to say whats right and whats wrong? its not me and thats all i know… i think. haha – but seriously. i am at a fork in the path of my life. which way to go? which is instinctive? i could go the way i am expected or i could take the other exit which will be seen as stereotypical of my irrisponsible behavior. how can i decide- conscious or not. should i go to the airport when my flight is scedualed. and see ultimatly which direction i feel… literally stand at the boarding gate close my eyes and clear my mind for a moment ,and feel which way i drift.

    I am tired of running laps around this subject. I am now about to pray for the first time in a long long long time. Maybe that will help me see the answers i really need. If not… wish me luck because ill need it.
    thanks for the time… Jaime Diane

  2. elizabeth peixoto Says:

    Very hard for me to make decisions …and the ones that i need to do it are out in a limbo/reach….don’t know how to organize my thoughts most of the time,,,,thinking of a Life Coach….Which way to go???decisions , decisions,…how can such loving giving people be so complicated?? how to make it simple…I think we want to leave life so bad…we get so worried about not having enough time and then we forget leaving this life to the fullest!!!! I want passion, pleasure, some money, help others, raise children, understand…health,etc
    I feel lost………………………………..

  3. Sam G. Says:

    I feel for all that has written, pleading for the right answers in life. In an attempt that this may help, I would like to share with all of you what i get out of this article. First of all, thats just it people, you are thinking way too much because, just like the researchers said, we all have the right answers for our personal paths with in us, hence our unconscious minds. Through my research, I strongly believe that the unconscious mind, which is a good 80-85% of our minds, already has a knowing of whats going on but is kept unconscious so that we can experience free agency (or free will) in order to grow, and to learn, and to choose what path we will take. I do not believe that life was ever meant to be easy, however, we are given help, but only with in ourselves. That’s why it is important to know who we are. Our bodies are just a vehicle for the soul, it is our souls that matter most, not our emotions, not our physical self, or even the imperfections of the world, for that makes us begin to loose site of who we are and the correct choice considering that the answers are with in us. You know how they say that all you need is faith. Faith in what, though, I would wonder. Faith in YOURSELF. Just believe in yourself for you truly have all of the answers. Now, I would like to state that even if you know what you should do and you do it, which you should, things may sometimes not seem like it was the right choice since it may cause you grief or more problems, however, that’s the part of life that I have talked about; to grow and to learn. No pain, no gain in life. And that would be your test of faith. But never second guess your unconscious mind, for it knows. The way that we know what our unconsious is saying is easy, for those who listen to their souls, and it’s not hard because you FEEL it. That’s your soul. Your conscious mind was made to reason, so it’s the one that’s saying, “Well if it weren’t for,” and “i would but….,” and “maybe or maybe not.” Don’t listen to that because it gets too confusing. Go with your soul, take what your heart tells you. I really hope this helps.

  4. Shivjohn Says:

    This is what i was looking for ..! Bury up your mind rather your soul in this life..make a decision that comes from your heart rather your unconscious mind…if you are in a confusion state ,just raise a coin in the air for the choices.,then you seem to have a good and conscious decision(choice) before the coin makes a decision…! Thats it..As you all know ,everyone got choices ,but a right (correct)decision makes a man perfect in his life.:-)

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