Have you ever wondered who you are, where you get your sense of self from? The answer is your unconscious self, and it may surprise you to learn that we’re largely unconscious beings. That all runs well most of the time, and is especially helpful when high speed physical responses are needed. But things go wrong when our conscious mind starts to try and take over an unconscious process. This is because we have taken time and effort to build and embed thousands of programs to run automatically. If we can embed them, we can also change them. If we can change them, we can also improve them. But this requires us to build a relationship with self.
Who am I?
Philosophically speaking, who are “you”? Whilst we’re at it, what is consciousness? Where is it to be found? If that’s too hard, try thinking about your “mind”: that part of you which observes your brain, but is not found in your brain. We can ask the same of personality, and indeed of emotion too. Where are they?
Physiologically speaking reductionists have you down as the sum of your systems: skeletal, muscular, nervous etc. Psychologically “you” are the sense of self. Psychotherapist Sigmund Freud called that the unconscious. Personality is there, passions, desires and management style too.
Brain researcher David Eagleman says we are incredibly unconscious creatures. He puts the unconscious percentage at 97%, which leaves a terrifyingly thin veneer of conscious control left to the “awake” us (Incognito, 2011). Apparently life is lived from the bottom up – your biology is in control. By contrast, life is experienced from the top down – your conscious, rational mind thinks it’s in charge.
This unconscious self is made up of the gut brain (about the size of a cat’s brain), the heart brain (the size of a rat’s brain) and the three layers of intelligence in your head: the brain stem (physiology), the limbic system (emotional brain) and the right neocortex (the rational brain). Psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist points out that most of this intelligence has no linguistic ability – the heart and gut signals coming up into the right hemisphere which almost entirely lacks speech (The Master and His Emissary, 2009).
A lot of what you take as your management style is actually unconscious, and down there you have the scripts integrated by your parents and upbringing, heuristics or short cuts you’ve found to work over the years, what you love and hate (stereotypes) and feel attracted towards, eating choices etc. These sit underneath your efforts at management by intention. Eventually those unconscious influences will have their way – it will all happen before you think.
All sorts of things affect your sense of self; your experience of being. Autism researcher Robert Naviaux has found that changing certain bacteria in your gut changes the serotonin pathway from your gut to your brain, which in turn brings on depression. A change in the way cells respond to threat can change your gut biome and bring the onset of gluten intolerance, irritability and sharper anger for example (“Metabolic Features of the Cell Danger Response,” Mitochondrion, 2015).
When things go wrong
There are occasions when your supposedly smart brain has a crack at taking over during what should be an unconscious exercise. I was doing my final certification in skydiving and experienced exactly this, but with horrible consequences. At 3,000 feet my eyes saw the wind sock, but my conscious mind said, “Land facing the little end.” Confusion. Anyone who’s flown knows you must land upwind – into the big end of the wind sock. Well I didn’t, and hit the ground at 60 km/hr. It wasn’t pretty. But my unconscious brain did save my life.
World Champion table tennis player Matt Syed says this phenomena – of switching to conscious control of a task instead of relying on the unconscious one – is the cause of chocking. You know the golfer at the last hole who goes 9 over par and loses the tournament? (Bounce, 2011).
My kids know this, facing the HSC. The more they cram and the harder they try to remember, the less they recall. Walking down the street you see someone, their face is familiar, and as your unconscious goes to find their name you “try” hard to remember it as well. No name comes to mind. Then what happens? A few metres down the road “pop”. The name comes to mind – too late!
When things go right!
With or without language, the unconscious you is at large, in charge and well able to protect you. Have you been in an accident and had time slow down? The high-speed biological brain you have simply takes over and does what it can, sometimes with amazing motor control. It down-regulates your rational brain and steals capacity. The “watching” brain experiences time slow down.
In the area of chess, a highly rational and cognitive process, Nobel prize winning psychologist Herbert A. Simon found that masters and grand masters almost always came up with their winning move at speed and by intuition. He concluded that in the management field we should be doing so at least 70% of the time (“Making Management Decisions: the role of Intuition and Emotion,” 1987).
I have a friend, Mario who ran the computer centre for Australia’s largest university. When Big Blue II was delivered to the Uni, it had glitches. He’d ring IBM and they’d work on it overnight. Meanwhile he’d go home, have a beer, post the question to himself and sleep on it. In the morning, “bing” an answer came. He always fixed the supercomputer before they did. Now that’s high performance.
Most of us don’t really have a relationship with that unconscious part of ourselves, except when we learn things. For example when we learn to drive, our practise is starchy and imperfect, but with practise it becomes automatic and smooth. It has become unconscious.
All one has to do to find the edges of this subterranean self however, and take that unconscious skill (driving) to the limit. Take a course in racing superbikes and you’ll quickly find that if you have to think, you die.
What happens at superbike school is a process of unlearning your “natural” reactions (to survive) and slowly integrate new programs. Epigenetics researcher Bruce Lipton estimates that we have ten thousand programs, and some of them need changing from time to time. You’ve got a program for everything: eating, driving, driving, talking including talking to yourself (“Epigenetics” the biology of belief, William James, 2012).
If you want to alter an old program like your fear of speaking in public, or intimacy, or leading directively, the good news is… you can change it. It’s a four step process going from conscious and incompetent, to conscious and confident. To truly master it you must become unconsciously incompetent (this usually involves a lot of practise) to finally become unconsciously competent. Or a ninja master!
Such change doesn’t come easy. Neuroscience tells us that to establish a new program takes 3 days – but the old one is still there. After 6 weeks of practise the new one begins to eclipse the old one (neuronally speaking). 10,000 repetitions and you become unconscious about it. Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours for mastery (Outliers, 2008).
Developing a relationship with yourself
What the chess grand masters and supercomputer fixers are doing is working with their unconscious and not against it. Before you get depressed about not having control consider this: the system has taken good care of itself and you so far, so let’s think about building a better relationship with it.
The process starts with awareness – direct your attention to self and pick an area: body language, language, discomfort, comfort, safety levels or gut reaction. Pay attention to what happens during the day, what changes your state or mood.
The second thing to think about is that the ‘you’ you’re used to dealing with and talking to is much smaller than this conscious you, and it really deserves some respect. Neurocoach of the Olympic Tae Kwan Do team Ian Snape says instead of trying to control it, or negotiate with it, first yield and submit (Neurocoaching Manual, 2015). He asked me to think of someone I really admired, a mentor or leader, and to consider that part of me like him. In my case that was a guy called Paul.
Remember McGilchrist’s theory that the unconscious probably doesn’t have. So building rapport with self is about intuitive listening, hearing your gut reaction, getting a feel for things and not just rejecting this somatic wisdom out of hand just because it doesn’t seem rational. I’m sure we’ve all heard of someone who was told by a friend, partner or loved one “watch out for that guy, I don’t trust him” only to ignore the warning and walk headlong into trouble.
Discernment is obviously needed. A pain in the gut from sickness is different to a stab of conscience because you lied which is different from a more general gut feeling of “this isn’t right”. Ask yourself inquiring questions like “what’s that about?” and “I wonder what’s wrong”.
Remember, you can trust your unconscious, it’s 97% of you, and has been taking care of business all this time. Its programs and machinery run like clockwork, but that doesn’t mean the programs are always right. You might have learned things as a child that are not really useful in management (like anxiety during public speaking). Take that, dig up the program and rebuild a new one.
Most of all… enjoy the journey!