Can you solve a moderately difficult arithmetic problem (say, 3 + 6 – 2 + 5) in your head? Sure, you can. You just need to think about it for a moment.
Could you do the same problem in your head if a researcher were flashing an incredibly annoying bright light in your eye? The light is so bright and flashes so quickly that it’s impossible to focus your attention. Yet, you can still solve the problem. How can that be?
The short answer is that your subconscious (aka System 1 in this website) does the work. It can process arithmetic problems or word puzzles that you’re not consciously aware of.
Professors from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem figured this out with an ingenious experiment. They presented the bright flashing light to one eye and arithmetic or word problems to the other eye. The light was so distracting that subjects didn’t realize that a problem was entering their brain. Yet, they were able to solve it just fine, without realizing that they were doing so. (Here’s the original research article; here’s a less technical summary from the BBC).
The subjects weren’t able to “think about it for a moment”. They couldn’t engage their conscious (System 2) thinking. So, how did they do it? It had to be their subconscious, or System 1.
This finding starts to challenge our long-held beliefs about the differences between our conscious and subconscious processes. We believed that certain skills – like arithmetic and word puzzles – require higher order processing. We need to engage System 2 and focus our attention. But this experiment, and many others like it, demonstrates that System 1 can do a lot more than we expected on its own. (For another example of how your brain can absorb information subconsciously, click here).
Ran Hassin, one of the authors of the flashing light study, went on to create a “Yes It Can” (YIC) model of the subconscious. Hassin asks the simple question, “Which high level cognitive functions can the unconscious perform, and which are uniquely conscious?” After reviewing numerous experiments, he argues, “…that unconscious processes can perform the same fundamental, high-level functions that conscious processes can perform.” (Click here for the article).
Let’s assume for a moment that Hassin is right – our subconscious mind can perform essentially the same functions as our conscious mind. Why, then, do we need consciousness?
Hassin points out that, “Good sprint runners can run 100 meters in less than ten seconds, but more often than not they choose not to.” Similarly, we might be able to use our subconscious for many tasks but – for one reason or another – we choose not to.
When I learned to drive, for instance, I was very conscious of the car itself, the dials on the dashboard, speed, road conditions, and so on. Today, driving is second nature to me. I can drive for miles without being consciously aware of it. It’s often called highway hypnosis.
My subconscious drives the car just fine until something out of the ordinary happens. When something novel (and perhaps dangerous) occurs, I instantly revert to conscious mode. According to Hassin’s argument, my subconscious might be able to handle the novel situation on its own. But, for one reason or another, my conscious mind can handle it better.
Perhaps the main role of consciousness, then, is to practice and master novel skills or to react to novel situations. As our skills improve, our subconscious takes over much of the task. Our conscious mind can move on to new things.
Perhaps our conscious mind continually hungers for novelty. We get bored when there is nothing new for our consciousness to work on. This could even explain the hedonic treadmill. New things engage us and make us happy. Old things fade into the (subconscious) wallpaper.
Consciousness, then, may be a fundamental force driving us toward creativity and innovation. Seen in this light, creativity is not simply a “good thing.” Rather it’s a “necessary thing.” We should pay more attention.