Chapter 2: Conscious thought
Let’s be real though. It’s fun to know how your brain is physically wired, but it won’t do much for you. It’s like with cars. We could be spending 20 chapters on all of it is built. Or we could talk about how you can best drive and enjoy it. So lets leave the hardware for what it is and focus on your psyche.
It’s a disgrace how little people know about themselves. You’re about to learn things that almost no one knows. You’re going to learn how you actually work and how you can change yourself. On top of that you’re about to learn how everyone else and society works. You’re about to get a superpower.
So how come we know so little about ourselves? One of the hardest things for us humans is to stare into the mirror and be honest about what we see. There isn’t a single person alive that can be objective when it comes to who they are. Objective just isn’t our native tongue.
We’re built to be judgmental. No one is ever going to describe another person by saying their nose is 5.1 cm long and 2 cm wide. Either it’s a big nose, a small nose or a normal nose. All subjective labels. Judgment is our natural way. We think in good and bad, beautiful and ugly, smart and stupid, etc. Keep this in mind whenever you think something doesn’t sound rational. We’re not rational, we don’t always make sense.
In order to ease into the craziness that we’re about to face, let’s start out with the most objective and rational part of your brain. Your conscious brain. As far as I can tell, it is our newest system. Very few species on this planet seem to have a form of conscious thought. Only a part of the mammal and bird species are blessed with self-awareness. The only possible exception that I know of is the giant octopus. These are a big mystery though so who knows.
It’s nice to have the capability for conscious thought (most of the time), but it isn’t necessary for survival. We tend to vastly overestimate the role our consciousness has in our lives.
Our consciousness actually has a very limited bandwidth. It can only really focus on one thing at a time (your conscious absolutely cannot multi-task), and even then usually relies heavily on your subconscious. It’s just not very big on giving credit. Instead it has a tendency to team up together with the ego and act like they’re all important. They’re like that annoying teammember that does almost nothing, yet tries to take all the credit.
So what can the conscious do? It seems to mostly do things like putting together pieces of information and analyzing them. It looks for patterns and tries to predict the future (which it absolutely sucks at). It also plays a major role in learning new complex tasks. Things like written language and maths are only possible when a brain possesses a consciousness.
Here’s the interesting thing though: It’s impossible to be very good at anything as long as it is something you have to do consciously. Let’s say you want to learn how to play the guitar. In the beginning every movement your fingers make will be conscious. As a result, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. After a few dozen to hundreds of hours, your subconscious will start to take over more and more. The movements will start to become automatic. After a few thousand hours, playing the guitar will become natural and after 10.000+ hours or so, you’ll become masterful at it. The exact number of hours depends on things like how intentionally you practice and how much talent you have. Learning complex things takes a lot of time though. Even Jimi Hendrix had to spend thousands of hours to become the player he was. The Jimi Hendrix we know played the guitar on a subconscious autopilot.
Let’s take myself as a second example. I used to play the guitar between the ages of 15 and 18. Haven’t played in the 10 years since. I tried it out again recently. Learning a new very simple song took me hours of practice. Playing some of the songs that I used to know came easily. Within 15 minutes I could play the way more difficult riffs that I used to know. These old songs somehow got stored inside me somewhere. The skill of learning new songs not so much. I am now a 3 song virtuoso. Anything else I need to learn consciously like a beginner.
Almost every activity you’ve learned in your life works this way. Walking as a conscious activity is incredibly difficult. It takes babies months to perfect it, even though they are way better learners than we are. Don’t believe me? Go visit a revalidation centre. Ask the people that have to relearn how to walk how easy they think it is.
The list is almost endless. Talking, eating, driving, painting, reading, you name it. If anything, our conscious is actually a major screw up. It is the one that causes you to choke before you go out on stage. The one making you blurt out something stupid when you’re hitting on someone. Our consciousness tends to overestimate itself. Egged on by your ego, it likes to take control of things that your subconscious is much better at.
One situation where this conscious take-over is very visible, is improv theater (especially with amateur improv). When faced with an unexpected event, there’s two ways improv actors can respond: Either instantly, or after three seconds or more have passed. Either they let their subconscious experience do the work; or their conscious thinking kicks in. Usually it will take at least three seconds before the conscious comes up with anything. Often it will take longer. The actor might even choke fully. Subconscious responses tend to be much funnier and better. The conscious ones more self aware and insecure.
We all know that feeling when things just flow. You’re having a great conversation or you’re playing a song on your guitar flawlessly. Your consciousness gets out of the way so all the automatic (subconscious) systems can do their work. In some cases you may not even remember how you did it. Your conscious doesn’t remember because it didn’t do anything. It was just an observer.
You maybe hesitant to trust your subconscious. The conscious and ego don’t like to let go. Yet you’ll find that results will often improve. The subconscious rarely screws up when it is doing something that it has been trained to do.
Once we get to the subconscious, we’ll also get to the question how conscious we truly are. Before we go there, let’s first discuss why our conscious thinks it’s the top dog. Let’s talk about the one part of your brain that is crucial in making or breaking you. The ego.