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Neurobiology professor pushes the limits of the unconscious mind

Published: January 18, 2013
Section: Features

Imagine a person who drives to work or school on a daily basis: The person takes the same turns, stops at the same stoplights, passes by the same gas stations and restaurants and arrives at the same place at the same time every day. This routine can become so ingrained in memory that by the time the person arrives at their destination, they may not even remember the journey they took to get there.
Going on autopilot, the unconscious mind takes over and guides the person along the same path they take every day for years. According to Professor John Lisman (BIOL), by forming a habit, one effectually delegates tasks to their unconsciousness.
With the help of Eliezer Sternberg, Lisman put together different ideas and created a new perspective on the issue that effectually boils down to this: Is it possible to equate the conscious and unconscious mind to habit and non-habits? His work was recently published in the Cognitive Neuroscience Journal.
“A habit is something outside your awareness and thus outside your consciousness … [it is] very difficult to study consciousness, but there are lots of ways to study habit,” Lisman said. By linking these, he has been able to study the unconscious mind because it’s easier to study a habit than the unconscious mind.
Lab work by Schneider and Schiffrin on rats in a maze shows that once a rat memorizes the turns in a maze, it will no longer pause to decide which path to take at an intersection. Similarly, dieters will reach for the tub of ice cream simply out of habit. A simple experiment Lisman likes to test is in greeting someone. He walks up to someone who says, “Hello. How are you?” He will respond, “fine,” yet the other person will also respond fine whether or not he returns the question. Further, the other person will not even recall his blunder later when asked.
In fact, Lisman has gone as far as to apply this concept to athletics to discover whether it is better for an athlete to pay attention or not. Experiments show, for example, that golfers who consciously paid attention to their swing tended to perform less accurately.
Lisman explains that it is possible to “offload to the unconsciousness … pretty major tasks and free your consciousness to do other things. That’s why we use multitasking.”
“Freud emphasizes the dreams as a way of understanding the unconscious. We’re saying you can see all kinds of unconscious behavior by looking at your everyday actions,” Lisman said.
No one has ever equated the conscious/unconscious mind with habit, but this information is a springboard for many other areas of study.
Physiologists can study which neural systems control doing a task by habit and which brain structures are involved with which processes. Their research can help enlighten diseases, explain how the mind works and describe what makes us human.
The conscious mind can only think of one idea at a time, but the unconscious mind works in a less linear way, processing many different things at the same time. So, Lisman and others ask, is there a limit to the degree of the task that can be assigned to the unconsciousness?
Perhaps with enough practice, anything can become a habit.
“The benefit of such a dual system is multitasking; the unconscious system can execute background tasks, leaving the conscious system to perform more difficult tasks,” writes Lisman.