The True Human: The Act of the Subconscious

António Damásio, the author of Descartes’ Error, is a neurologist. Some of his works are related to the subconscious and conscious. In an experiment, Damasio with a group of scientists got some gamblers to play a game of cards. Four decks of cards were provided, two red decks and two blue decks. Then the players were asked to pull the cards randomly at will. Each card either wins you some cash or like a gambling loss, cost you some money – and picking it one at a time determines your wins.

They attached to each gambler a device that measures the sweating rate and temperature of their hands. Since the hand contains nerves that are very sensitive, any slight changes in the activities could easily be detected. The gamblers started the game, but soon they began to pick more from the blue decks and less from the red decks – this became more apparent as they approached the eightieth card when they almost only pulled from the blue cards.

The reason: most of them figured that the red cards tend to have good profits for a few picks, but most of them were waiting hazards. They bore outrageous penalties and a huge loss in cash. However, the blue cards were milder. Though the money from the blue card was less compared to a good red card, the penalties were not substantial. Most gamblers started picking more of blue cards which began gradually from the tenth card and became progressive by the fiftieth card when most of the gamblers had started to grasp the idea that the red cards had greater risks. However, they were not fully conscious of the fact until they had gotten to the fortieth and finally concluded at the eightieth.

It is notable that the rate of red card picking started to drop all the way from the tenth card. Coincidentally, the device on their hands began to generate stress responses after the tenth card was drawn. However, the gamblers were not aware of the red deck problems while on the tenth card – yet they started drawing more from the blue cards, unconsciously. It’s easy to figure from here that the unconscious mind of the players had already reckoned as early as the tenth card that the red decks were waiting disasters to be drawn without the conscious noting. Unconsciously the players responded by picking less of the red with time, (meanwhile the conscious was still processing).

The conscious needs more clues to be sure of the risks associated with the reds but the unconscious had already estimated though not accurately and taken actions. Whenever the conscious comes to play, it picks the red card to confirm it’s deductions (frequency of occurrence), its degree of certainty which is why it took so long as forty cards to find out.

The actions and deductions of the unconscious are spontaneous – approving the fact that it processes data so fast without our notice, and why is because it bypasses protocols like some memory workings and others. This form of processing can be positively quick to save our necks at certain times like the card scenario, and it can be negatively fast enough to ruin decisions requiring careful thoughts before execution.

Now we know that data perceived by our sensors sent to the brain takes only fraction of seconds to be processed but has to go through protocols of verification, reasoning, judgment and identification which is what makes us humans. On the other hand, the brain already has answers waiting in seconds which is always right but needs to go through protocols.

Another important but stunning attribute of the subconscious is narrated in Benjamin Lahey psychology textbook. He explained how he drove several miles without consciously being aware of it. How he stopped at every traffic, slowed down at a bend and accelerated to overtake, was all taken “out of mind” – to him, out of mind here means unconsciously. He could scarcely recall the drive when he got home. This is, however, a common happening to everyone, we carry out complex duties without being aware of them.

The subconscious is faster than the conscious almost in all circumstances. It does not need our permission to perform its functions which it does virtually without our awareness of the processes. Hence, it gathers its information fast and prepares it for the conscious analysis.

I have a younger brother who thought I could be menacing sometimes when we were much younger because I insisted that permission is required before anyone touched my things. My wardrobe was always neatly arranged, and I knew exactly how I positioned my things so well that if someone messed with them, I would know and most times will guess the intruder right. More often than not, they were perplexed, sometimes wondering how I ever got to know. This ability lies in my unconscious strength to grasp the little arrangement details even when I was not aware as it was a simple task to determine, angles, positions, shapes and so on are all critical data the unconscious take seriously. It’s the same reason we can quickly identify one another facially unconsciously. Why we can easily detect slight changes in some things like a statue known and having a mild deficiency can easily spark off reactions even when the observer may not be able to express exactly what’s gone wrong with it. I could just tell if there was an intruder by just a glance. I was probably able to determine who by noting which of my things wasn’t right and who should be in need of it.

Another important exhibition of the subconscious is shown in priming – an experiment conducted by John Bargh where groups of words were arranged, and individuals were asked to allocate positions or groups to the words within a short time. For example, the name Sylvester belongs to men’s list of names and Joan belongs to the female. The experiment easily exposed the tricky and raw nature of the subconscious. This is why it is used in Implicit Association Test (IAT) to determine people’s stereotypes such as gender, prejudice, and racism. You may say, yes a woman has equal rights as a man in a family consciously, but unconsciously, it’s the other way round without taking cognizance of it. This true nature comes to bloom under certain situations requiring spontaneous judgment. Like Gladwell said, you may agree that blacks are just nice and alright as whites, but you may not notice that you pulled back a little when a black person approaches to talk or inquire a matter, or that you smiled a little less too. It frequently happens without our awareness. This deep but subtle and underground nature of the subconscious has so much influenced our everyday life that sometimes it seems mysterious, even though it is just automatic.

In the following weeks, we will delve into the exciting world of our subconscious while considering: Instinct, Intuition, Learning, and Dreams.


Antonio R. Damasio. (1995). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain.
Benjamin B. Lahey. (1986). Psychology: An Introduction.
Malcolm Gladwell. (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype priming on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230-244.


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