Jan 242014

TVO devoted a week of primetime programming to Mysteries of the Mind. And The Agenda, hosted by Steve Paikin, featured a different brain-focused topic each evening as introduced by Dr. Norman Doidge, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Toronto and author of The Brain That Changes Itself. One of TVO’s multi-part documentaries was on the unconscious mind, and The Agenda featured a panel discussion on that topic on Tuesday, 21 January 2014. The premise of the documentary was that we are entirely controlled by the unconscious mind. The panellists on The Agenda took a more nuanced view, but someone said somewhere that with each advance in scanning technology and research into the unconscious and conscious minds, we are seeing that more and more of our brains are about activity in the unconscious mind.

Some of the points they made puzzled me because as a person with a brain injury they didn’t quite fit. One point in particular bothered me: the experts stated that the unconscious mind makes decisions for us, that although we may feel that our consciousness does, the decisions are in fact made before we become aware of them, that the only way the conscious mind influences decisionmaking is if we challenge our decision consciously and in a different environment.

The experts also said that the cerebral cortex, the seat of conscious awareness, consumes as much energy as all our muscles whereas the unconscious mind consumes little energy. In addition, the conscious brain processes slower than the unconscious. Thus if we used our conscious mind solely and for everything we do, like brush our teeth, make decisions, play basketball, walk, find a mate, we would be slow and make mistakes. Sound familiar?

I have had my evoke potentials tested, and we have seen that my neurons fire quicker than average. Thus my unconscious mind should be working at normal or faster speed.

Take all that together, and I think . . . hmmm.

As a person with a brain injury, I cannot make decisions. With the help of various people and through trial and error, I have come up with strategies to make decisions. For example, these days, I buy only two apples at the grocery store. I don’t think about it; I just find two. If I had to decide on how many to buy each week, depending on what was in my fridge, what I felt like eating, and so on, I’d stand there for at least five minutes . . . maybe ten . . . maybe give up . . . before I chose my apples. Grocery shopping could take awhile. With major decisions like whether or not to buy an iPad, I use a decision tool or a couple of them. I have to think consciously about each step and each question in that tool, although filling in some of the answers may involve my unconscious mind.

My experience is not an isolated one. It seems that somehow brain injury makes the unconscious mind stop driving the conscious mind, and forces us to rely heavily or solely on the conscious mind. Until recently, I had to even think about walking. It didn’t feel like I was thinking with my conscious mind about how to move my legs until I no longer had to, because I’d become so used to it.

If the theories about the unconscious mind are true, then it seems that either the unconscious mind no longer talks to the conscious mind or the conscious mind no longer listens or the unconscious mind isn’t the driver of those of us with brain injury so much as it’s the seat of all learned behaviour and with brain injury we need to learn all over again. How much we have to re-learn depends on the extent of the injury and the kinds of and which memories remain intact. Perhaps too, although long-term memories may remain intact, our connections to them are damaged, and so they drive us in ways we are not aware of and force us to make an effort to understand. Sometimes they may drive us insane, as in PTSD. As one of the panellists stated, this part of the unconscious mind can be tapped through hypnosis and either given back to us or changed so that they are no longer “in charge.” Is that true for people with damaged brains too?

Watch The Agenda episode below on Unlocking the Unconscious and answer this: how do you think your unconscious mind works in you? Do you think you’re still connected to it? Do you think your conscious mind has to do all the work, if you have a brain injury? What are some ways we could tap into our unconscious mind? We’ll discuss these questions on #ABIchat on 27 January 2014 at 4:00 pm EST.

  • Diane

    Excellent insights and questions, Shireen. I hope you might consider writing Dr. Doidge about the connection between unconscious and conscious mind in the aftermath of brain injury.

  • Hi Diane, I hadn’t thought of writing Dr. Doidge. I’ll keep it in mind though. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed reading my blog!!

  • Mark Koning shared with me via email and gave permission to post:

    I have to start by saying that I liked your grocery shopping example in your blog post. I am somewhat similar because if I deviate from the list I make I can end up standing there looking at the apples or chips, trying to make a decision, for longer than I should. 🙂

    I watched the video of the TVO program and I gave it some thought. I sort of agree with the non-(or sub) conscious mind (I think of ‘unconscious’ as being out of it, knocked out or in a coma) being something that stores automatic information. The example they used of the person driving home and not entirely paying attention makes sense in a way. When something is part of your regular routine and you have preformed it so often I can see it becoming almost like auto-pilot. But I don’t understand how it makes decisions for us and kind of takes away our awareness.
    I am quite aware of the things I do; cleaning the house, shopping, moving, talking, etc…. Perhaps it is because of the brain injury that has made me more aware. It also seems to me that the non-conscious being in control of so much thought and decision making, being out of our conscious control, is a bit of a contradiction to neuroplasticity.

    The thing I don’t like about “experts” (and they are not all like this) is that when they talk about something that is so individually personal to people (like our habits and the way we function) they talk as if things are set, as if there is only one way. We are all different in many respects to our thoughts.

    I just sent in something I wrote for the BIST blog (not published yet) called “Abilities” and one of the things I talk about are the abilities I’ve acquired from my brain injury. I say that I am more focused, more aware, of the things most people take for granted.

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