How the mind works

The world is a complex place and the human mind does a remarkable job of making sense of it all. From discovering hidden laws of math and physics, to just trying to understand the intentions of a neighbor who says that they “like” your dress (while making a funny face), the mind does a lot of work. Sometimes that ‘work’ leads us to understand the world correctly, other times our conclusions are inaccurate. Both outcomes result from the same basic processes.

Sometimes we feel our mind at work. This is called conscious processing. It’s the kind of thinking we engage in that is effortful, intentional, and controllable. We ‘experience’ the act of conscious processing, which involves seeing images in the mind, or having a conversations inside of our head. When trying to make decisions, we may agonize over different options, rehearsing and reconsidering positive and negative elements of different choices. We may write our thoughts down. We may express them out loud.

But conscious processing isn’t the only way the mind works. We also have a whole set of processes which go on outside of conscious awareness. These processes are operating constantly (some even while we’re sleeping), and help us navigate our complex social environment, all without us ‘feeling’ the experience.

Let me try to help you feel it. The following words are presented in colored font. Rather than read the words presented, I want you to try to say the color of the font. Go from the beginning to the end of the line as quickly as you can:


Not bad right? In fact, probably pretty easy. Now do the same thing with the following line (remember, you want to say the font color):


Was it harder than the first line? Why?

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that as fluent English speakers (which I assume anyone reading this blog is), the mind is able to read automatically. We don’t have to think about it, and maybe we don’t even WANT to do it (indeed, your instructions here were to do something different). Nevertheless, it happens. It’s a process going on outside of conscious control. We can become aware of it in this task, because it interferes with the task we are actually trying to do. Other times, though, we may not even realize that unconscious processes are affecting us.

One way that the unconscious mind influences us positively is with the use of schemas. Schemas are mental structures that organize our knowledge on a particular topic, and influence the way we notice, think about, and remember information. We develop schemas through experience, so, for example, if your neighbor brought you cookies when you moved in and is willing to take care of your mail when you’re out of town, you may form a schema that she’s kind and generous. Likewise you have schemas about what happens when you eat in a restaurant (there is a whole different procedure than when you’re eating at home!), how to take a taxi, and what ‘science’ is. Whatever your beliefs and expectations about these topics, picked up from whatever experiences you’ve had with them (first, second, or third hand) – that’s your schema.

As we’re navigating life, so long as things proceed as we expect (i.e., so long as things fit our existing schemas), we don’t need to waste any time or effort trying to figure anything out about the situation we are in. We can run on automatic pilot. And we may do very many things in this mode of thought. I, for example, have a morning routine that includes washing my hair. I go through the motions, but am usually consciously thinking about what I have to do for the day. Half of the time when I’m drying off, I find myself wondering whether I actually shampooed my hair. I probably did, but I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, I was just running on automatic pilot.

Anytime our schemas are violated through – let’s say that your neighbor yells at you for parking too near to her spot, or your shampoo bottle explodes sending shampoo all over the shower – your unconscious mind will tell your conscious mind – hey! Something’s weird! You need to figure this out! In those moments, we’ll pay closer attention to what is going on in our environment, redirecting our attention to elements we may have ignored, save for the schema violating experience.

This dual-processing approach to navigating the world is rather functional, allowing us to save ‘space’ in the conscious mind to focus on what is important in the moment. I don’t really need to talk myself through shampooing my hair every morning – if I did, I’d have to get up MUCH earlier to be prepared for me day.

Let’s take a moment to experience that allocation of conscious awareness. Play the following video (it’s 60 seconds, you have time!), and really focus on the task at hand. The video quality isn’t great, so it’s actually really hard. Do what you can to focus and try to get the right answer. Ready? Press play:

Well? Did you get the right answer?

We need ‘space’ in the mind if we want to think about anything at a conscious level. More specifically, we need cognitive capacity – this is kind of like mental energy, and that energy is best devoted to one thing at a time. It’s why we’re limited in terms of how many things we can do (well) at once, or why I can’t ever remember if I actually shampooed – my mind is otherwise occupied with considerations of what I have to do for the day, focused on only the most important cognitive task at hand.

More generally, if we’re thinking about something carefully, we may totally miss other things going on – that’s why when you were watching the video, you probably got the right answer OR you saw the moon-walking bear, but not both (maybe some of you did, especially if you expected there was some trick at hand, but hopefully you get the idea).

Just like fuel in your car or strength of your phone battery, our cognitive energy is limited. If we spend too much time studying or reading technical information, we may use up the energy we have, and we may need to replenish it by taking a brain break, getting some rest, or having a healthy snack (particularly fruit).

But having capacity isn’t enough. We also need motivation to consider information at a conscious level. Sometimes we simply decide to allocate our conscious awareness to some task (like working on our tax forms). Other times our attention is directed to some information either because it’s relevant to us, or because it violates our expectations. An example of the former is if you’re at a party, engrossed in conversation, when across the room you hear someone say your name. Here the unconscious mind is telling the conscious mind – hey, direct your attention over there, it might be important! An example of the latter was given above – when your sweet neighbor yelled at you. Again, it seems very strange, and different than what we would expect, so our mind is compelled to figure out why it has happened.

You may assume that these unconscious processes can lead us astray in the way we perceive the world because we’re not ‘really thinking’. Certainly they can. But in my last two posts, I’ve written about how motivation can lead to bias. Hopefully you can see that even the conscious mind isn’t going to be a perfect information processor. It’s human, and it balances efficiency and accuracy the best way it can, given the inherent limits of our mental skills. So remember these two forms of information processing; they will be important to bear in mind as we see how each plays a role in our perception of the world in future posts. Stay tuned…



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