Terminology Clarification Regarding the “Subconscious”

I’m enjoying reading Why I Left Orthodox Medicine: Healing for the 21st Century by Derrick Lonsdale. I noticed that he uses the word “subconscious” differently than I do. I wanted to clarify my terminology in case anyone is confused.

In Critical Fallibilism (CF) essays, “subconscious” refers to the part of the mind that you aren’t consciously aware of. It involves intelligent thought and ideas.

Lonsdale uses “subconscious” to refer to the lower brain, outside of the mind, which automatically controls some bodily functions like heart rate, digestion, menstrual cycle, circadian rhythm, shivering, sweating and breathing. He’s maybe not fully consistent about this, because he also brought up Freud’s psychological ideas about the subconscious, but I think those were related to a part of the mind, not the part of the brain that controls digestion. These lower functinos are mostly things our mind doesn’t control, and we normally don’t think about, although we can take conscious control over our breathing when we want to. The lower brain is a computer which is programmed by our genes and can’t be modified like ideas can be.

The brain is a computer with multiple parts – the upper and lower brains. Or maybe it’s better to think of it as two separate computers with wires connecting them. The upper part is the mind, which has ideas and intelligence. The lower part controls a bunch of the details of running a complex body, which involves a bunch of work that we don’t normally think about.

Philosophy deals with the mind but the rest of the body is less relevant. I don’t usually discuss the lower brain. I also don’t usually discuss the heart, liver, blood, arms, legs or skin.

I use “subconscious” for the part of the mind you aren’t conscious of, and usually don’t mention the lower brain that’s outside of the mind. And I generally just don’t use the term “unconscious” (which some people use interchangeably with “subconscious”). Some of my old writing uses “unconscious” but I switched to using “subconscious” on purpose because I think it’s a clearer way to refer to a lower part within the mind. “Unconscious”, unlike “subconscious”, sounds like a reasonable descriptor for a rock.

Lonsdale is a doctor who uses “subconscious” to refer to the lower brain, which is the part of the brain that comes up more often in his medical discussions. I’m not sure that he knows there is a subconscious part of the mind. Lonsdale says the lower brain is a computer and that we don’t fully know how the upper, cognitive brain works (he doesn’t use the term “mind” like I do). Writing in 1994, Lonsdale reports that some doctors, and some of his patients, don’t believe the brain does anything automatically at all. They think they have conscious awareness of everything their brain does. (Maybe they think your heart rate is controlled by your heart and your digestion is controlled by your stomach? I’m not sure. The heart, stomach and many other body parts do some things on their own, but the brain is the commander.) Some people found it confusing when Lonsdale told them that their brain is sending problematic signals to their body, but they weren’t aware of sending those signals.

There are two parts of the brain that you aren’t consciously aware of. There are ideas in your mind that you aren’t conscious of and there’s a part of the brain outside of your mind. Our lower brain functions basically the same way as the lower brain of some animals.

Some animals have a higher brain that does some functions which aren’t done by the lower brain. Lonsdale said that reptiles only have the lower brain (I doubt that’s entirely accurate). A mouse or cow has some additional brain, besides the lower brain, which provides some useful capabilities (that are different than human intelligence).

The exact scientific details of how brains work are not fully known, but I think we can create reasonable and useful conceptual models anyway. When dealing with many topics including philosophy and rationality, a useful model is to split the brain into the mind (the intelligent part) and the rest, and then to split the mind into the part you’re consciously aware of and the rest. That model has three parts: the lower brain, the subconscious mind and the conscious mind. Because the lower brain is external to the mind, it often doesn’t come up in epistemology, which deals with ideas. Ideas are a data structure within the mind used by our intelligence software.

Also, the lower brain does things automatically, but that is a different type of automatization than CF talks about. CF instead talks about the automated use of subconscious ideas within the mind.