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Consciousness and Unconscious Processes: The Brain’s Autopilot

Continuing our journey into the depths of our minds this week with an excerpt from David Eagleman's "The Brain." Eagleman reminds us of the importance of unconscious processes alongside our conscious actions, questioning the brain's ability to switch to autopilot. How would our lives be if we didn't have this ability?


How would we perceive the world around us if we had to think about every step we took? Would we be able to walk properly? Eagleman answers these questions with a striking analogy:


"Imagine having to think about every step you take while walking; would you be able to pay attention to what's happening around you? Or could you have a healthy walk?"

The Brain's Autopilot System:

According to Eagleman, our brain creates special circuits for the skills we learn throughout our lives (such as walking, riding a bike, swimming), essentially establishing an autopilot system. Thanks to these programs, we can perform complex movements with minimal energy and without conscious effort.


Lessons to be Learned from the Excerpts:

  • The brain's autopilot system allows our conscious mind to focus on more important tasks.

  • Automating complex movements helps us conserve energy.

  • Learning and practice enable us to create autopilot circuits in our brain.



Brain’s Autopilot

Created by DALL-E 3


Automation allows our brain to learn new skills and perform them without conscious effort. This enables us to automate complex tasks, freeing up our minds for more important endeavors. However, there is a cost to this automation: it limits conscious access to newly learned skills.


The Mysterious World of the Unconscious

As complex programs operate in our subconscious, it's not possible for us to fully grasp the exact workings of these programs. For instance, you can't precisely comprehend how you maintain your balance while climbing stairs or how your tongue moves when you speak. These skills become automatic over time, transitioning into the realm of the unconscious and enabling us to operate on autopilot in our daily lives.


Many of us have experienced arriving home after driving along a familiar route and realizing that we don't remember much about the journey. This is because the skills of driving have become automated and transferred to the subconscious. At this point, our conscious mind, or "you," has become a passenger, relinquishing control to the subconscious at the wheel.

The adverse effects of conscious intervention

When we try to consciously intervene in skills that have become automatic, our performance generally declines. This is because our conscious mind overloads the automated processes and disrupts complex coordination. Therefore, it is best to leave learned skills, especially the very complex ones, to their own devices.


The Dean Potter Example

Climber Dean Potter didn't use ropes or any safety gear in his climbs until his final fatal accident. Devoting himself to climbing since the age of 12, Potter had acquired extraordinary skill and precision through years of training. Entrusting all control to his subconscious while climbing, he entered a mental state called "flow," which extreme athletes experience at the peak. In this flow state, Potter allowed his brain to switch to autopilot mode and relied on the skills he had honed through years of training.

Dean Potter's story is a striking example of the power of automation and the subconscious. Our brains can automate complex tasks beyond the reach of our conscious minds, granting us incredible abilities. This allows us to redirect our minds to areas where we can be more creative and productive.



Dean Potter and his family

DEAN POTTER AND HIS FAMILY


A sportsman in a state of flow, like championship wrestler Austin Naber, is unaffected by the noise created by conscious intervention. (How do I look? Did I lock the door?) During flow, the brain enters a temporary state called "hypofrontality," where activity in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex decreases. These areas are associated with abstract thinking, planning, and self-awareness. The backgrounding of these processes is crucial for a person to be able to hang off a steep cliff. Dean's accomplishments were made possible by suppressing the noise of inner voices.


Now, let's recall some basic information about the effects of training on our brains and synapses. Let's draw some conclusions from the stories of Dean Potter and Austin Naber.


Connections between neurons are called "synapses." Chemicals called "neurotransmitters" transmit signals from one neuron to another at these connection points. However, synaptic connections are not equally strong; they can be strengthened or weakened depending on their activity history. As the strength of synapses changes, information flows through the network in different ways. A connection that weakens enough eventually fades away, but if strengthened, new connections sprout. Some of these restructuring processes are guided by reward systems. When things go well, the neurotransmitter dopamine spreads throughout the network. The networks in Austin's brain have also been reshaped—very slowly and subtly—over hundreds of hours of practice, depending on the success or failure of each movement.



synapsis connections

SYNAPSIS CONNECTIONS -BY WIKIPEDIA



There are many situations where stepping aside from consciousness is advantageous. Especially when it comes to certain types of actions, there's often no other choice because the unconscious brain can work at speeds that the conscious mind can't match. Consider a baseball game. When the ball is pitched straight, it can travel at speeds of up to one hundred and sixty kilometers per hour from the pitcher's mound to the home plate. To be able to hit the ball, the brain needs to react in just a fraction of a second. Within this time frame, the brain must regulate and process a series of intricate movements. Hitters often succeed in hitting the ball, but they don't do it consciously; because the ball moves so fast that they can't consciously perceive its position. If they were to try to consciously think about the ball's position, they would miss the hit without even understanding what happened. In this case, consciousness doesn't just stand aside, it disappears into thin air.


That's why we repeat the same things over and over again when learning a new language. Just think about when you first started speaking. You could only produce certain sounds, but now you're able to read this text aloud; how is that possible? Or in playing a musical instrument, in sports, in dancing, in riding a bike... You perform many actions in your life without even thinking about them. For example, I'm not consciously thinking about the positions of the keys on the keyboard as I write this because I've done it repeatedly and now there are synapses formed in my brain about it. You may have heard various methods like "10,000 hours to mastery" to become an expert in something. The background to all of these methods is repetition, automation. Because if you can automatically, without thinking, do the normal thing of something, you can think about the flaws or areas that can be improved in that thing and develop yourself in that area.

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