Written by Rory Z Fulcher
All hypnosis and hypnotherapy relies on suggestions being given, in hypnosis, in order for the subject’s subconscious mind to accept said suggestions. But, what is the subconscious mind and what’s the difference between the subconscious mind and the conscious mind?
Firstly, it’s worth noting that some people refer to the subconscious mind as the ‘unconscious mind’. However, they fundamentally refer to the same thing. We prefer the term ‘subconscious’, simply because the use of ‘unconscious’ can, for some people, conjure up images of unconsciousness, and as you probably know, hypnosis is a conscious state of focused attention, rather than a state of unconsciousness. So, throughout this blog, we will refer to the subconscious, but it’s entirely up to you whether you choose to do the same.
The constructs of the conscious and subconscious mind
If you were to look at a human brain (or a scan of the brain), you would not actually be able to see the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. That’s because the conscious mind and the subconscious mind are metaphors for how the brain works. Many different areas of the brain are used to perform conscious processes, and similarly, other areas of the brain work when we’re unconsciously (or subconsciously) doing something, such as driving a car.
When you drive a car, many areas of your brain begin to work in unison. Your frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex play a part in judgement and decision making. The parietal lobe helps to integrate information from the senses, and helps with spatial perception. The occipital and temporal lobes interpret the visual information you see, and make decisions about the significance of sounds that are heard whilst driving. The cerebellum helps to coordinate muscle movements and balance, and activates when you make a decision whilst driving. However, some of those processes happen consciously and some happen more unconsciously.
Though the conscious mind and the subconscious mind do not physically exist, they are a fantastic metaphor or construct to explain how our mind can work in different ways. This is often useful, as a hypnotist/hypnotherapist, when explaining hypnosis and the ‘power of the mind’ to potential volunteers and clients.
The conscious mind
Before we talk about the subconscious mind, first, let’s consider the conscious mind. The conscious mind is the culmination of the parts of the mind and the mental processes that contribute to your being able to think about things right here in the present moment. Everything you are actively thinking about right now is deemed ‘conscious thought’. You are conscious of it happening, and you are mostly in control of what you are thinking.
This ‘consciousness’ also applies to behaviours and movement. If you’re consciously thinking about what you’re doing, such as when trying to learn a new skill (e.g. a sport), then the conscious mind will be taking the lead. If, however, you’re doing something that you already know and have practiced extensively, such as tying your shoelaces, the conscious mind takes the back seat, and your subconscious steps in, completing the task without your needing to think about it consciously very much, if at all.
Interestingly, it can be very difficult to consciously perform a complex activity that you are already able to perform unconsciously. With the shoe-tying example, if you try to consciously think about how to tie your shoe laces as you’re tying them, it can often take longer, and you might even make mistakes whilst doing it! This is one of the reasons that we teach our hypnotherapy students to perform hypnotherapy intuitively (subconsciously) rather than having to rely on hypnotherapy scripts – the conscious learns what needs to be learned, then the subconscious takes over!
The conscious mind is able to process up to 40 different environmental stimuli per second, and can remember between 5-9 things at any given time (using the short-term memory). Your conscious mind is able to accept or reject suggestions, and it is thought that your ‘free will’ is a conscious process, led by your conscious mind.
The subconscious mind
Whilst the conscious mind accounts for what you’re consciously thinking about or deciding to do, the subconscious mind does everything else.
The subconscious mind stores your memories and beliefs. It takes care of all your unconscious body-processes, pumping your blood, keeping you breathing, processing your food, and everything else your body is doing right now without any trace of conscious effort. Above all, though, the subconscious mind learns. It is a huge storehouse of information, it retains all of the information you have encountered in your life (though, whether you are able to consciously access said information at will is a different matter).
The subconscious is also a creature of habit, so to speak. The subconscious learns by repetition, and bases the acceptance of its learnings both upon the filter of what we are consciously thinking at the time and our ‘critical factor’ (more on that in a moment), as well as basing new information against all of our previous, relevant learnings. The subconscious is always ‘awake’ and taking in information, and contributes to why we dream what we dream, and is why we can often incorporate external sounds and events that are happening around us whilst sleeping into our dreams (such as a dream incorporating an alarm sound, that is actually your morning alarm clock going off beside the bed).
Where the conscious mind can process 40 pieces of information per second, the subconscious can process 20 million pieces of information about the environment you’re in per second, as well as 100,000 chemical reactions per cell, per second. This means the subconscious mind is processing around 400 billion pieces of information every second!
The subconscious mind is not logical, and it often works a lot better with imagery and symbols, which is why simply telling someone what to do during a hypnotherapy session, will not always achieve the desired result. This is why well-trained hypnotherapists do not simply learn to use direct suggestions alone, but also employ a range of more indirect and metaphorical therapy approaches in order to communicate more effectively on a subconscious level, helping to bypass any conscious resistance along the way.
The conscious ‘critical factor’
As well as the conscious mind and the subconscious mind, there is a third ‘metaphor’ that is less frequently spoken of, though it is widely referred to within the world of hypnosis and hypnotherapy. The ‘critical factor’ (sometimes mis-labelled as the ‘critical faculty’) can be thought of as a bridge or gateway between the conscious and the subconscious mind. The processes that make up the critical factor function as a ‘gatekeeper’ or ‘security guard’, ensuring that nothing unwanted moves from the subconscious mind into the subconscious. These processes examine, interpret and filter incoming information, rejecting anything that is deemed unhelpful for the person as a whole.
You may already be thinking, “well, if we have this critical factor working for us, why then do we sometimes end up behaving in ways that don’t serve us well, or develop beliefs that are unhelpful?”. This often comes down to something called a ‘secondary gain’. Fundamentally, though an unhelpful belief, behaviour or response may, on the face of it, be unhelpful or even harmful, there is an additional benefit that is also present. So, for example, someone may drink too much alcohol (unhelpful) because it makes them feel confident in social situations (benefit).
Sometimes things can slip past the critical factor, and this is certainly true of suggestions given by hypnotists (we do it deliberately). Suggestions given in hypnosis do not follow the standard route from the conscious, through the critical factor and into the subconscious mind. Instead, the hypnotic suggestions bypass the conscious and critical factor, travelling directly into the subconscious, where they are less likely to be critically analysed and potentially rejected. That’s one of the reasons why hypnotherapy can be a much quicker process than other types of talking therapy.
Explaining the difference between the conscious and subconscious
As a hypnotist or hypnotherapist, it’s beneficial to know the differences between the conscious and the subconscious, and how to easily explain these to your volunteers and clients. However, rather than going through all of the information from this blog in ‘lecture mode’, it can be much easier to use a simple metaphor (and hey, the subconscious minds of your audience will appreciate it too)! We teach all of our hypnosis students the following analogy as a simple way for anyone to understand how the mind works…
The mind is kind of like a computer, and you can split the computer into two distinctive parts. The first part is interactive, the screen, mouse and keyboard, and these are like your conscious mind. You can engage with things on the screen in real time using the mouse and keyboard, just like you can engage with your present thoughts and influence your actions. The second part, everything else in the computer; the CPU, the motherboard, the ram, the storage, is like your subconscious mind. It’s the stuff that you don’t need to actively interact with, but it’s what makes the whole computer work. It’s your memories, your unconscious body processes, your beliefs and attitudes and even your personality traits. All of these ‘unconscious processes’ are taken care of by the subconscious, just like how your computer runs thousands of processes in the background leaving you free to concentrate on what’s on the screen.
As you can see, this metaphor is simple. quick and easy for anyone to understand, and makes a great addition to any hypnotic tool-kit.
If you’d like to learn more about how hypnotherapy can bypass the critical factor and create long-lasting subconscious change, check out our range of courses and even our full online hypnotherapy certification here:
We hope you’ve enjoyed this blog on the conscious and subconscious mind, and if you have any more questions about this topic, or anything else for that matter, do please get in touch, because we’re always happy to help!
– written by Rory Z Fulcher