The power of the subconscious – fact or fiction

What role does the subconscious mind play in goal driven behaviour? SImply Google “subconscious” and you’ll find a host of self help sources promising to unleash the power of the subconscious, or as Anthony Robbins puts it “Awaken the Giant Within”. “Alternative” theories of the role of the subconscious in goal achievement abound. Wikipedia is somewhat scathing: “The idea of the ‘subconscious’ as a powerful or potent agency has allowed the term to become prominent in the New Age and self-help literature, in which investigating or controlling its supposed knowledge or power is seen as advantageous. In the New Age community, techniques such as autosuggestion and affirmations are believed to harness the power of the subconscious to influence a person’s life and real-world outcomes“.

Depth psychology (Freud, Jung) place the subconscious (unconscious is the more correct term) mind at the very centre of behaviour. And while many would conceed that the subconscious mind influences our thoughts, feelings and behaviour, much of what is theorised about the subconscious mind was done without scientific or neurological foundation.

Many popular personal achievement theories centre around pseudo or fringe science often impling a meta physical connection between subconscious thought and physical reality. Other less ethereal theroies tend to lean towards, sometimes tenuous, psychological explanations. The later borrowing from various psychological disciplines such as depth, social and cognitive psychology. Here the subconscious mind is often seen as an semi-independent “mini me” who is uncomfortable with dissonance; the idea that anxiety occurs when behave out of accordance with our perception of who we are (self concept). According to many popular theories, the main role of “subconscious “mini me” is to ensure consistency our of self of self, and hence seeks to remind us that this or that thought or action is inconsistent with our core self. The “mini me” is heard as our internal dialogue; the barely audible little voice that says “you can/can’t do this”. When our internal dialogue (ingrained subconscious beliefs) enforce a negative perception self they often derail our desire for personal achievement (for example, when you interview for your dream job and you find yourself feeling anxious and the interview does not go well it was because the message from your “mini me” was undermining your self efficacy (the feeling that “you can do this”). Positive affirmations are believed to reprogram your “mini me”, changing your negative to positive internal dialogue. Now it is one thing to explain how reprogramming your internal dialogue can influence your behaviour within a given situation (performance in a job interview or on the sports field), it is quite another to explain how your subconscious can direct future events.

I am not discounting the power of the subconscious but the lack of any neurological unpinning has made me reticent to promote these approaches (where is the subconscious anyway). However, I have also been reluctant to dismiss these approaches outright as personal anecdotal evidence suggests to me that there is something to these “positive thinking leads to future personal achievement” approaches. Finding some neurological explanations for these sometimes esoteric approaches has been of particular interest for me.

In the next post I shall share recent neuroscience research that, I believe, points towards a more grounded explanation for “personal achievement through positive thinking“.