Have you ever driven into work and wondered how you got there? Have you ever heard a song in the morning and it stuck in your head all day? Have you ever thought you forgot someone’s name and then later that day, relaxing or watching television, their name suddenly popped into your head? These are all examples of how our subconscious mind works. So let’s explore it a bit more.
The Iceberg Analogy
Although there is no definitive model for the human mind, an analogy that is sometimes used is that of an iceberg. The 10% of the iceberg above water represents the conscious mind and the 90%, which remains below water, represents the subconscious or unconscious mind. So if you can learn to use even 1% more of your subconscious mind than the average human being, you will be operating much more effectively on many levels.
We use our conscious mind for everyday rational tasks such as making decisions, talking to people and answering phones. Whatever you’re putting your attention on right now is your conscious mind at work and that of course should be what you are reading!
On the other hand, as you read the words are you consciously aware of each letter of each word? Unlikely, unless you like reading incredibly slowly! However there is a part of your mind that is processing all the letters, otherwise, how could you understand the words on the page? This again is your subconscious mind at work.
Our subconscious mind is being used all the time. It contains memories, skills, beliefs, habits, self-image, communication abilities and much more. It controls our heartbeat, blood pressure, breathing and healing. When you get a cut what part of your mind plays a part in helping that cut heal? Do you consciously tell your body to activate whatever needs to be activated to heal the cut? No, it happens automatically. It happens subconsciously.
Our subconscious mind also contains all the skills we have learnt. Every time we wish to use that skill our subconscious mind runs the programme we have learnt.
An everyday example of this is driving a car. Once we are competent at driving we don’t have to consciously think about everything we are doing. It’s like we’re in autopilot – we put our foot on the clutch, change gear and monitor changes in the traffic, all at the same time! However there was a time when we had to think consciously of everything. That is when we were learning how to drive and it seemed very confusing.
Normally when someone is learning any skill they have to practise it repeatedly until the action becomes a subconscious process. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could get the most effective skills into our subconscious faster and much efficiently? We can! By visualising it!
When we are learning any skill we are creating new neural pathways in our brain which in essence “store” that skill. Basically brain cells are connected together.
Now we can physically practice the skill and these neural pathways will develop but we can also visualise the skill and the neural pathways will also develop. This is now commonly known as “Neuroplasticity”.
You may have heard of one of the most famous tests of this theory, carried out by a Dr Judd Blaslotto at the University of Chicago in 1996.
He gathered some participants and divided them into 3 groups, and tested them on how many free throws they could make. After that he got them to practice as follows for 30 days:
- The first group practiced free throws for an hour each day.
- The second group visualized themselves making free throws.
- The third group did nothing.
After 30 days, Dr. Blaslotto tested them again.
- The first group, after 30 hours of physical practice, improved by 24%.
- The second group—who never touched a basketball but instead imagined themselves shooting perfect free throws—showed a nearly identical improvement of 23%.
- The third group who did nothing did not improve, which was expected.
So what difference can this make to your performance? Ideally as well as practicing physically also invest a lot of time practicing mentally. If there is a specific skill you want to improve, firstly consciously know exactly what you need to do to improve it. Then put yourself in a relaxed state of mind (take some slow deep breaths) and visualise yourself performing that skill exactly as you need to.
When’s your next important presentation or sales meeting? What sporting skill do you want to improve – swimming, running, rugby, golf, soccer? Isolate the particular skill you want to improve. See yourself performing it exactly as you want to. Do it a number of times over a number of weeks and you’ll be amazed at how much quicker you will improve compared to only practicing physically.
Finally another very important difference between the conscious and subconscious mind is that the conscious mind thinks rationally and the subconscious thinks irrationally. Our conscious mind is the critical faculty. It acts as a gatekeeper or filter, constantly reviewing information before relaying it to the subconscious. But our subconscious mind will believe anything we keep telling it particularly if it is backed up by emotion.
So even if when you’re visualising you’re not quite believing it, no problem, your subconscious mind soon will! And the next time a song get’s stuck in your head for the day, make sure it’s an inspiring song!
Sean M Kelly is an International Professional and People Development Trainer/ Coach with over twenty years experience in the training industry. He has created and delivered training to many successful businesses and organisations in countries including Ireland, UK, USA, Luxembourg, Italy, Russia, Lithuania, Israel, Poland, the Czech Rep. and South Korea. Sean focuses on providing interactive, experiential and empowering training and coaching which can have an immediate positive impact in the workplace.