Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Conscious versus Unconscious

My blog is, very obviously, an analytical one.  Which is another way of saying that I clearly employ conscious thoughts to try and understand the topics I write about.  Yet, in the case of most sports and games, snap decisions and unconscious analyses are required to succeed.  So which is it Obama?

First off, I hate mysticism.  When somebody says, “unconscious thinking is the true intelligence blah blah blah” I tend to fog over.  Yes, our unconscious mind is extremely powerful.  There’s no arguing that.  Most players and competitors say that when they’re in the zone, they think very unconsciously.  I agree wholeheartedly.  When you play games or compete in activities that require instant decisions, and require you to process a lot of information accurately and quickly, the unconscious mind is the clear winner.

Your unconscious mind lets you catch a ball flying through the air without needing to do any math to analyze its trajectory or fall-speed.  It does not ask you to calculate the heat-energy expenditure of your legs pumping a body of X weight over Y distance at Z velocity.  When somebody does a front flip off a platform four feet high, their unconscious mind calculates the necessary force to have a controlled and balanced flip so they land on their feet.  Then they can do the same thing from a platform six feet high, using a different rotation speed, ensuring they still remain balanced.  But if you asked somebody to sit and plot these things using pen and paper, they might be stuck for awhile.

The body, however, can just do it.  The unconscious mind is amazing, even more amazing when coupled with the body.  So while I hate it when people say, “truly it is a mystery that can’t be understood, how mysterious and amazing,” I still have enormous respect for it.

One book I’ve been reading uses the term “philosophy” to describe knowledge without experience.*  When you theorize without having experiences and real life data to back up your ideas, they remain isolated in your brain.  I mean this literally; when neurons fire simultaneously, they will being to form connections with one another.  The connection is physical and real, and grows stronger with time and repetition.  If you only have an idea, with no experience and no extra information, it’s just a small, isolated cluster of knowledge in your brain.  It’s tough to access, and unless you have a lot of time on your hands to recall it, it’s nearly useless for practical application.  You need sensation, emotion, and other facts to connect to that idea; this increases the strength of the connection and the association, letting you draw upon conscious knowledge quickly.  That’s how it is, because that’s how your brain is.  Neurons fire simultaneously, and if they do so enough times, they actually form connections between one another.

So if you want to make your conscious knowledge accessible and useful, you must tie it to experiences.  Eventually, through practice and association, the conscious knowledge comes to your mind immediately, and we can say it has become unconscious knowledge.  It turns from an active process of remembering into “I just think about it instantly, I don’t even control it,” or “I just know.”

On the other hand, it’s possible to experience things without any philosophy or conscious thought; you can go into your training, or your life, without some guideline for understanding and formatting your experience into useful knowledge.  If knowledge without experience is called “philosophy,” then experience without knowledge and preparation is what I call “a waste of time.”

I don’t necessarily mean that with regards to everything. There is a lot to be said for spontaneity and surprises in creating a fun and interesting life.  I mean this with regards to your training and improvement.  Taking actions without rhyme or reason must lead to more data and more plans for improvement, or it’s not going to help you.  Many people I know just play when they sit down to practice, without any plan or focus.  They don’t improve, or they do so accidentally.  More often than not, they just ingrain their current habits further.

Conscious knowledge and thought will come before experience.  Conscious knowledge combined with experience turns into unconscious knowledge.  Unconscious knowledge is uncontrolled, but faster.  So with conscious guidance, you can control your future instincts.

You must also take those experiences and transform them into data, which you can consciously analyze (or have somebody do it for you, like a coach or a teacher or a friend with lots of time on their hands).  New, more updated data can then become part of your conscious knowledge, which you take into your future experience.  That which is accurate and good can be kept, and made unconscious and permanent.  That which is not can be discarded.

If I can make an analogy here (and I totally can, because you can’t stop me), I’d actually compare your conscious mind to the coach, and your unconscious mind to the player.  The coach gives the player a gameplan.  The player executes, and then goes back to the coach for feedback and improvement.  The coach can’t play the game for the player, because by the time the coach is done shouting instructions, the moment has typically passed; without a coach to analyze and teach, however, the player often learns strange lessons, or just goofs around and flounders, doing nothing much.

It’s a circle and a process.  Data leads to improved understanding of experience.  New experiences lead to more data.  Data gives you knew ideas to have different and improved experiences.  The conscious feeds into the unconscious and transforms it; the unconscious executes and learns.  Then the cycle repeats, and--hopefully--you become better and more efficient at what you do.

I hope this has been interesting.  See you later this week.

*The book is Evolve your Brain: The Science of Changing Your Mind.  It has been interesting so far.


  1. Great post as always Wobbles.
    Thanks for writing such thoughtful entries.


  2. Have you read "the art of learning" by Josh Waitzkin? he says a lot of the same things I found it was a great read for me


  3. Looking forward to seeing you at the big house (hopefully)