Humanity | MPI Philosophy

Subconscious Mind

There are many references in this book to the fact that living an MPI life means getting as close to nature as possible and being as aligned with nature as possible. This makes sense from an anecdotal experience point of view, however, there is also research that tells us how our immediate environment impacts us. The majority of the time spent maximizing our impact or doing things that make us happy will be in our homes or our workplaces. The reality is that everything in our immediate environment effects, not just how we feel, but how we behave and it mostly occurs as a result of our subconscious minds detecting these environmental factors without our conscious awareness. 

We are constantly being told by psychologists that our subconscious minds have a significant impact on our daily lives. How significant is that impact? Is it something that can affect even the simplest of tasks? How do we even know the subconscious mind impacts us at all?

Psychologists have recently conducted numerous studies that research how people’s social instincts might be influenced by their immediate environment. Some have found that people tend to tidy up and cleaned more thoroughly when there is a hint of cleaning liquid in the air. Another experiment showed that people tend to become more competitive if they see a briefcase and another show that they become more cooperative when they see words like “dependable” and “support”. The research seems to indicate that these changes occur without any self-awareness of the change. Psychologists interpret this as an indication of how people respond to every day sights, smells and sounds then react according to their predetermined goals.

Research (4.3) also indicates that the subconscious brain may be far more active, purposeful and independent than previously thought. Although the conscious mind may be focused on one thing the subconscious mind may be working on one of our predetermined but separate goals. This may explain why we sometimes engage in conflicting behavior.

 “When it comes to our behavior from moment to moment, the big question is, ‘What to do next?’ ” said John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale. “Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness.”

Dr. Bargh added: “Sometimes those goals are in line with our conscious intentions and purposes, and sometimes they’re not.”

Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, along with others in the field seem to agree that there is solid evidence for psychological hot-wiring. 

In one 2004 experiment, psychologists led by Aaron Kay, then at Stanford University, had students participate in a one-on-one investment game where they couldn’t see the other player. Half of the students played while sitting at a table where there was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio at one end of the table. These students ended up being much more frugal with their money than another group of students that played in an identical room where the briefcase was replaced with a backpack. The researchers concluded that the presence of the briefcase was not consciously registered but triggered more businesslike associations and expectations. The students did not have any sense of whether they had acted generously or selfishly.

In 2005, Dutch psychologists conducted an experiment where undergraduates sat in a cubicle and completed a questionnaire. The rooms contained a bucket of water that contained a citrus scented cleaning fluid in another part of the room. After completing the questionnaire the participants were given a crumbly biscuit by the laboratory staff. The researchers covertly filmed the participants during this process and discovered that the students that were in the room with the cleaning liquid (hidden from their view) cleared away the crumbs three times more often than another group that completed the same questionnaire with no cleaning scent in the room.  “That is a very big effect, and they really had no idea they were doing it,” said Henk Aarts, a psychologist at Utrecht University and the senior author of the study.

The researchers propose that the brain is using the same neural circuits for execution of unconscious thoughts and conscious thoughts. Research conducted by English and French neuroscientists performed brain imaging on 18 men and women who were playing a computer game for money. The players were told that the tighter they squeezed on the game’s handgrip when an image of money flashed onto the screen the more money they could keep. Many of the images were presented subliminally, however, the players still squeezed harder when they saw images representing larger amounts of money compared to images representing smaller amounts or no money.

The brain imaging indicates a bottom-up sequence of events (subconscious first and then conscious) in the decision-making process. Researchers suggest that this makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because the subcortical areas of the brain evolved first and were required in order to manage the fight or flight response and the pursuit of food and water well before addressing the less immediate issues. Other studies have indicated that an unconscious goal can persist with the same determination is a conscious pursuit.

This research is fascinating because it demonstrates how even the smallest things in our immediate surroundings impact us and it demonstrates how it happens. Although we will inevitably go to places in our lives where the people and the objects in those places can inadvertently trigger our subconscious mind to make us feel or act in an unusual way there isn’t really much that can be done about this other than to be aware of the fact that it’s happening and understand why our behavior might change from day to day even if our mindset has not changed. However, there is one aspect of our lives where we have a significant influence over how our surroundings interact with our subconscious mind. That is our homes (and, for many of us, our work environment). The studies above show how the mere presence of a briefcase or the scent of cleaning liquid can impact a human’s behavior. 

These are the reasons that you don’t want to have a desk in your bedroom, you don’t want to have a book that promotes relaxation sitting on your desk and why you do want plants and animals in the places where you do plan to relax. This can be extended to the clothes that you wear and even the brands (what they stand for) of the various products in any room. If you have a designated area for contemplation then you should consider what will help to promote contemplation and find a way to insert it into this space. You should look at the space and ask yourself whether any of the items that are currently in the space will somehow inhibit contemplation and, if any such items exist, remove them. Think about the amount of time that you spend in your own personal space. Think about the productivity, relaxation, motivation, enjoyment or any other objective that is being compromised by the stuff that is in the wrong place in your space.

Next article in this series: “The Optimism Bias”

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