• Posted in July 2008
  • Article written by Michael Carroll

Understanding your Mind - Conscious and Unconscious Processing

How to utilise the recourses of your unconscious mind

In this article, I will present a much-used metaphor in NLP and that is the notion of a conscious and unconscious mind. I use the word metaphor because neither the conscious or unconscious mind exists in the literal sense. The terms are just useful to package conscious and unconscious processing.

Clients come to see me because they want to change something in their life. What they are really seeking is to change the way they create their maps of the world; they never quite say it like that though. The client’s are living in a story. Now while they are the central character in that story, they have problems because they are creating the story unconsciously. In most cases clients use their conscious mind to wrestle control of the problems without explicitly including the unconscious mind in the change. This is an error and one that New Code NLP seeks to correct. When we engage the unconscious mind, the change will be lasting. It’s all a matter of good communication between the conscious and unconscious mind.

The nervous system has two main elements, the central nervous system (CNS), which are the neural networks in the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which are the neural networks outside of the central nervous system. Neurons in the CNS communicate with neurons in the PNS and vice versa. Saying it another way, a thought isn’t just in the head, a thought is also experienced in the body. Body sensations (pain, temperature shift, twitching) are not just in the body, they are experienced in the brain as well. An early presupposition of NLP was that the mind and body are a linked system. While this may be widely accepted today in medical and therapeutic circles, it was not at the inception of NLP.

The Philosopher René Descartes did not have access to neuroscience in the seventeenth century, when he stated that mental experiences are separate from body experiences. This mind-body dualism was widely adapted by many scientists and psychologists for some three hundred years. Very few (if any) scientists hold the Descartes mind body dualism in the form presented by Descartes. However, a lot of psychological approaches have been built upon an alleged superiority of conscious thinking, with therapists using methods to get the clients to think and talk their way out of a problem. The challenge is, as you will read in the following paragraphs, thinking and its derivative talking (conscious mind), is such a small part of the intelligence of the whole mind that therapies that are restricted solely to conscious mind analysis are not successful.

Conscious Mind

The conscious mind has limited processing capabilities, compared to the unconscious mind. The conscious mind is dominated by the logic of natural language partitions represented in the narrative of a linguistic description.  George A Miller’s paper ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two’ is often cited in NLP as a reference point for research into the limitations of our capacity for conscious awareness.  Miller suggests conscious processing is limited to just seven plus or minus two bits of information. We refer to the conscious mind as the representation of the immediate map you have conscious access to. Your conscious mind expresses itself through your internal running commentary on the events you experience in any one moment.

Your conscious mind is the part of your mind that you are using to read and process these words. As you look at this page you are saying the words in your mind, and as you derive meaning from the text, you establish how the meaning relates to you. Your conscious mind is linear, sequential, and logical and likes everything to make sense. You may have heard the expression in NLP “he has an overactive conscious mind”. This means the person seeks to logically understand everything (a real paradox), wants a label and explanation for his experience, finds it difficult to be in the moment or go with the flow, does not switch off from internal dialogue, and is often less aware of sensory experience. As part of the critique of the classic code of NLP, Bostic and Grinder in Whispering in the Wind, suggest the conscious mind was overly involved in selecting new resources in how some of the Classic Code NLP patterns were coded. 

Unconscious Mind

The unconscious mind is everything else in the mind body system that is not conscious in that moment. We say somehow your unconscious mind has the complete knowledge of the system that is you. Your unconscious has amazing processing capabilities compared with the conscious mind. Research shows the unconscious mind absorbs millions of bits of sensory information through the nervous system in any one second. Given the name ‘unconscious mind’ you will not be aware of a lot of the processes that the unconscious mind engages in. Some people are more aware than others of the functioning of the unconscious mind. These people have what’s called good communication with their unconscious.

On the physical side, at this moment your unconscious is regulating the functioning in your body, pumping blood from your heart, digesting your food, cleansing the lymph cells healing any cuts, counteracting any antibodies that come into the system and so on. You don’t consciously have to think about making your heart beat; your eyes blink or your lungs fill with oxygen. All this happens unconsciously.

The components of your past experiences and what you have learned in life physically and mentally are within your unconscious. If I was to ask you to think of your first day at school, your first kiss, a representation or series of representations may come to conscious attention. These representations of past events are located in the unconscious mind. The past representation came from the unconscious and was then brought to conscious attention, what was previously in your conscious mind was replaced (an example of the seven plus or minus two). 

If you have a phobia, every time you experience that phobia you are physically and mentally matching current stimuli (VAKOG) with an unconscious reconstruction of a past representation. The unconscious mind is habitual and learns easily when stimulated. In the case of the phobic it’s usually one experience that creates the learned behaviour of a phobia. It’s amazing how the unconscious mind remembers to activate a fight or flight response every time the phobic comes into contact with the phobia stimuli. Introduce the phobia stimuli and no matter what the phobic is doing, his conscious attention will be jammed with the fight or flight response.  Even though intellectually the phobic understands the spider/mouse cannot hurt him, he cannot override the unconscious response with conscious will. The logic of the conscious mind does not work when dealing with problems.

Your unconscious mind expresses itself through feelings, habits, and sensations in your body i.e. pain, light-headedness, muscle tension. So-called emotions such as happiness, sadness etc are the conscious mind labels assigned to unconscious processes such as electrical chemical reactions in the nervous system. The emotion is felt in the body as sensations; we nominalise the experience in the body and talk about emotions, often losing touch with the true feeling.

The unconscious mind has within it enormous potential for change and is able to learn positive new responses easily as well. It’s a question of stimulating the unconscious mind through effective communication with it to create change.

Examples of harnessing the unconscious communication for change

Unconscious communication through pain sensation
A few years ago I pulled a sacral muscle in the lower part of my back and was in considerable pain. A visit to the osteopath offered me mild relief. I was advised that the natural healing process would take six weeks and exercise and good posture would help me get better.  Good posture isn’t an easy task when you’re in pain. I wanted to be free of pain and wanted to return to my normal posture, I thought, “I am getting better quicker than that!” Taking the advice of the osteopath to take light exercise, I took my dogs for a long walk. I went to the forest and sat down in clearing and began to let my mind go. I could see my dogs playing, the mist rising on the grass, the clear blue morning sky, the new leaves swaying on the trees. I could hear the birds singing, the wind rustling the leaves, and I could feel the cool spring breeze on my face. I made no judgements; I had no internal dialogue, just my sensory awareness totally open to the input. I was probably in this state for about half an hour. I stood up, walked back through the park, surveyed the beauty of nature on this crisp April morning, and made my first linguistic representation since sitting down in the forest - the words “total harmony”. I walked home gradually returning to my regular state. I showered, got ready for the office, and only realised when I got in my car, that I was nearly free of my back pain. I had a twinge of pain at the bottom of my back so I decided to use the sensation of pain and set up a communication loop with my unconscious mind.

“Unconscious, for a yes response will you please increase the sensations in my lower back.” 

I experienced a sharp increase in the pain. I thanked my unconscious for the signal and sensations returned to the level before I asked the question. I tested, and I could not make the change in sensations happen consciously.

I then asked my unconscious for a no response, “Unconscious, for a no response, will you please reduce the sensations in my lower back.”

I experienced a reduction, I thanked my unconscious and the sensations returned to the level prior to me asking question. I asked my unconscious to clarify if there was a positive intention for the sensations and I experienced an increase in the signals (a yes response). I asked my unconscious to find/create five new choices (and signal when it found them) that are as good as or better than what I was experiencing at that moment (pain) and match the intention.  After five minutes I received a yes signal. I asked my unconscious to now take responsibility for making the change, received a yes response and checked again. By the end of the day I was pain free and had normal posture.

If you are trained in NLP, you will be aware that the process above is the ‘six step reframe’, now known as the ‘n step reframe,’ created by John Grinder. The key to the above was working with an involuntary unconscious signal and intention. Pain is certainly involuntarily and the way I set up the signal I could not control. The body has a phenomenal way to heal and with good communication you harness its healing abilities. I did not need to consciously know the intention, just confirm there is one. Since then I have been free of back pain. There is one exception, and that is when I adopt an uneven posture with more weight on my left leg.  I had made a habit of this sloppy posture, and as trainer would often spend long periods standing this way. If I ever assume this posture now, I get the signal, and I am very happy to listen to the signal.  Was not the intention linked to changing this posture, I will never know for sure, nor do I need to know, it’s just a story. The key to this unconscious change pattern is creating an involuntary signal.

There are many ways of working with the unconscious mind including establishing an involuntary signal, metaphor, behavioural tasking, hypnosis and dreams, All of these processes (and there are more) engage the unconscious mind whilst cleverly occupying the conscious mind. Consider the conscious mind as the organiser and the unconscious mind as the provider. Using this metaphor, the organiser requests of the provider resources to create a different quality of experience in a given context. When the communication is clean the provider delivers to the organiser what has been requested. The so-called problems in life are only there because the communication between the conscious and unconscious part of mind has not been effective!

Remember the conscious and unconscious mind do not exist inside your mind, the labels are given to package different process that occur in the nervous system. By establishing effective communication between conscious and unconscious processes you can easily solve problems, be more creative and generally create a different quality of experience in your life.

About The Author

Michael Carroll is the founder and course director of the NLP Academy and co-founder with John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair of the International Trainers Academy of NLP.

He is the only NLP Master Trainer in the world certified by John Grinder and Carmen Bostic St Clair and he works closely with them in developing and delivering high quality NLP training.

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