Conscious and Subconscious Ideas

Table of Contents

As a useful approximation, we can divide all our ideas into two categories. One category is conscious or explicit ideas (ideas that you can put into words). The other category is subconscious, inexplicit or intuitive ideas, including emotions.

Sometimes we have no conscious awareness of a subconscious idea. However, it’s common to be aware. E.g. you might know that you’re happy or know that you intuitively think something is a bad idea. You might not consciously know why you’re happy or why it’s a bad idea, although sometimes you can consciously figure that out.

Subconscious ideas are below consciousness but are not unconscious like a rock. An analogy is using a computer. You can think of the stuff displayed on screen as the conscious ideas. What the computer does, which isn’t displayed, corresponds to subconscious ideas. Computers do a lot of computations “behind the scenes”. Only a small fraction of the information in a computer is shown on screen.

Brains are (literally) computers. Only a small fraction of the computation in your brain is either the conscious awareness part itself or is observed (or noticed or introspected) by your conscious awareness. You can think of your conscious mind as being able to look around at your subconscious mind, although some parts are difficult to observe, and there isn’t time to look at everything because your subconscious is huge. It’s a little like your conscious mind is the one single inspector for a giant factory taking up over a square mile and employing a thousands of workers. The inspector can go where he wants, but he’ll still miss a lot of what’s going on. And some places, like in small ducts, or in the middle of machines, are hard for the inspector to look.

Why Differentiate?

Why are the conscious and subconscious categories useful? Because the ideas should be treated in different ways. You have more direct control over conscious thinking and more awareness of it. Your conscious mind plays a large role in intentional decisions. Your subconscious is where biases can hide more easily, and it can be harder to find and fix subconscious mistakes.

Your subconscious is more mysterious. You largely create it yourself, but a bunch of the creation was done during childhood and you don’t remember it. A bunch of the core ideas of your subconscious are created by age five and they’re hard to understand or change as an adult.

Your subconscious has far more brain power than your conscious mind. It’s harder to use but it’s got more computing power. Most of your mental resources are subconscious not conscious. So a key part of learning and using your mind effectively is to figure out how to use your subconscious well and get a lot of value from it. Don’t try to just rely on your conscious mind.

A standard strategy for learning is to consciously figure things out first, then practice until your subconscious learns it too, and then let your subconscious handle it from then on. It’s easier to make adjustments while using conscious attention. Once you’re satisfied with your idea or skill, and you don’t expect to change it anymore, then teach it to your subconscious.

With hard things, sometimes you can get your subconscious to do most of the work but not all of the work. Split it up into sub-tasks (or sub-ideas) and get your subconscious mind to handle some but not all sub-tasks. If your conscious mind has to do 10% of the work, that’s much better than consciously doing 100% of the work. Trying to limit the work your conscious mind has to do should be one of your major goals. Conscious attention and effort is a limited resource which is a major constraint, bottleneck or limiting factor in life.

Practice

Teaching your subconscious generally involves practicing. It can also involve visualizing doing things or other sorts of mental practice. It can also involve just thinking about the issue and trying to consciously understand it. But most people, for most issues, find it hard to get their subconscious to learn very well just from thinking about something. Actually doing worksheets, using flashcards, writing notes, and doing other activities is more effective than thinking alone. Even saying ideas out loud to yourself often helps compared to just quietly sitting still.

We can divide learning into two basic categories as a useful approximation. There’s learning physical skills (e.g. throwing and catching a ball) or mental skills (e.g. arithmetic). Both work with the same principles of practicing to train your subconscious. A standard example of practicing a physical skill is repeatedly throwing a ball to try to improve your aim and power. A standard example of practicing a mental skill is doing a worksheet with a bunch of math problems. There are also many other ways to practice, including more indirect ways. The point of practice is to figure out actions that can help your subconscious learn a skill.

When practicing, you should focus on correctness first, then focus on speed and ease second. Don’t try to speed up, or get comfortable so that it’s easy, until after you’re actually getting it right. A good example for thinking about this is learning to touch type. It’s easier to learn to type with the correct fingers, and avoid typos, when going slow. It wouldn’t make sense to try to type really fast first while making a ton of errors, then try to fix the errors while still typing fast. Go slow until you’re satisfied with how you type and no longer want to change it, then work on speeding up after that. Then if you do need to make a change later, slow down again while trying to change.

Sometimes people stop practicing after they get correctness to around 95%. This has two problems. First, where is the 5% error rate coming from? There’s some unsolved problem. Maybe you can ignore a 0.1% error rate as just random errors, but an error rate of 1 in 20 is pretty frequent and meaningful. That kind of error rate tends to indicate some kind of conceptual misunderstanding.

Another common mistake is people stop practicing after they become just barely good enough at something when making a conscious effort. Instead, (for things you’ll reuse a lot in the future) you should practice until your subconscious is good at it. You’re not done practicing just because your conscious mind got it right. Conscious effort is a valuable, limited resource. Keep going until you can handle it subconsciously (by habit or intuition, so it feels automatic or second-nature).

You should only rely on conscious effort in the long run for a few really important and hard things. For most things, you want to delegate them to your subconscious or you’ll never use them much since they aren’t important enough to use up conscious attention for.

How much to practice does depend on how important something is and how much you plan to use it later. School misleads people about practice because it requires them to learn things that they don’t want to learn and don’t plan to use later. So people get in the habit of doing poor practice that’s just good enough to pass a test (using conscious effort) and then they forget what they learned and become unable to use it in the future.

If you’re practicing things based on your own goals and your own free choice, that will actually be useful in your life, then you need to usually practice it until your subconscious can do it well.

Building Up Your Knowledge

It’s only when your subconscious can handle something that you can build on it to more advanced skills or knowledge. When your conscious mind is busy with it, then you can’t really think about more advanced things at the same time. But if your subconscious mind can deal with it, then your conscious attention is free to look for improvements and to layer more complexity on top of it.

You can build up very complex knowledge in many layers (a.k.a. levels of abstraction), but doing that requires that your subconscious can handle almost all of it. People often manage to go a couple layers past something that requires conscious attention, but then they get stuck and don’t know why. When stuck, people usually assume the problem is with whatever they’re currently working on (the current layer), but actually the problem is often a layer or two earlier. People move on too early when their previous layers aren’t good enough to support building much new knowledge on top of them. Then they often don’t realize they need to go back and practice earlier layers of knowledge more. They tend to assume that if they got something right (consciously) a few times, then that layer was fine and they were ready to move on (but they weren’t). In other words, people are often stuck because of a prerequisite that they’re missing, so to solve their problem they need to work on something else instead of keep trying at the same thing. The prerequisite is usually something they worked on recently, because they can’t build many layers of knowledge on a layer that isn’t good enough. (Unless they start really ignoring knowledge quality, in which case they can build as many non-functional layers as they want, and come up with some really ridiculous ideas and have no idea where they started going wrong.)

People also get stuck in a similar way due to errors in earlier layers. So on the one hand a layer may not be good enough due to inadequate automatization, practice, and teaching it to your subconscious. But also, you could practice plenty and form strong intuitions, but what you practiced was actually wrong. In that case, your subconscious learned how to do something, but that something contained errors. It’s really inefficient to spend time practicing errors and teaching them to your subconscious, so the more you’re going to practice and automatize something, the more you should check it for errors first. Error checking should involve more than just thinking about what you’re doing. It should sometimes involve asking other people, seeking public criticism, reading books, watching videos, doing tutorials or courses, and whatever else you can do to get relevant knowledge.

You can often build a few layers of knowledge past an error, but not too many, so then you get stuck. When you get stuck, you should review the previous several layers of knowledge for mistakes and/or inadequate subconscious training. Also, you should begin this review when you’re having a hard time, not after you’re so stuck that you fully give up. Don’t wait until making progress on the current thing is entirely hopeless before you admit to being stuck and try to solve the underlying problem from an earlier layer of knowledge. Don’t let suffering or despair be your motivation. Instead, review earlier ideas for issues when progress is harder or slower than normal, not when you’re really stuck.

Simplifying

Training your subconscious tends to involve simplifying ideas and skills. You can break them down into smaller parts and have your subconscious learn individual parts. Your subconscious doesn’t deal with complexity as well as your conscious mind, but it’s good at quickly and accurately doing many simple tasks (much like a computer).

If you’re having trouble learning something subconsciously, try to split it up into several different parts and learn them separately, one at a time.

Another key way to simplify ideas for your subconscious is to remove any creative thinking or tricky judgment. Instead of “I’ll know it when I see it”, which sometimes works consciously, you should identify specific patterns and exact ways to identify them. Imagine you’re training an employee who’s not very bright and doesn’t take much initiative. You could do the job yourself with only some vague guidelines, but this employee needs specific instructions in writing. You’ve got to tell him exactly what steps to do in what order. And you’ve got to tell him when to do the task at all – what conditions should trigger doing it? Similarly, there are often optional steps, so you need to specify under what conditions to do or skip the optional steps.

How do you specify conditions? In general terms, one of the major approaches is pattern matching. When certain patterns are present, do this or don’t do that. When certain patterns are absent, do this or don’t do that. Looking at things in more specific ways like this can help you train your subconscious. As long as you don’t know details like that explicitly yourself – when your conscious hasn’t really figured them out – then it’s hard to train your subconscious to do what you want.

Teaching your subconscious requires thinking about ideas somewhat differently than you’re used to. You can’t rely on much creativity or intelligent problem solving when your subconscious is handling a task. You need to rely more on methods, steps, checklists, policies, etc., which is pretty similar to dealing with a mediocre employee. Lay out what you want your subconscious to do in clear, simple terms. You can’t leave things undefined and rely on figuring it out as you go along because someone else will be doing it who won’t figure it out the way you would.

A Subconscious with a Mind of Its Own?

Sometimes it seems like your subconscious does things that you don’t consciously know how to do. Sometimes it seems to have a mind of its own. How is that happening?

During childhood you taught your subconscious to practice and learn things. You automated parts of learning so that they no longer require conscious attention. Doing that is very powerful. It’s great to do more of that as an adult, though it can be tricky to figure out how to do it. Also, some of the basics of learning might be inborn and be designed so your subconscious can do them. (Inborn doesn’t mean they can’t possibly be changed, though figuring out how to make any changes could be very hard, and making beneficial changes would be even harder.)

Rational thinkers try to use their conscious mind to analyze and improve things, to monitor for errors, and to make things better. But you can also go through life pretty carelessly and just act like a normal member of your society. Our culture has good enough traditions to have some sort of life without being very consciously thoughtful. But if you want to develop any important new ideas, or understand some unconventional ideas, then some conscious understanding of what you’re doing is really important.