Humans may be the only organisms we know of that are capable of thinking about thinking, but ironically the majority of our habits and routines are still built unconsciously.
Like a long line of vertically placed dominoes, one seemingly innocuous stimulus today can tip the first one over, causing a chain reaction that affects you days later.
This is caused by what modern neuroscientists call the cognitive unconscious, which is the brain’s constant processing of information at levels beyond awareness, and leads to a psychological phenomenon known as priming.
Although this phenomenon is not something you can consciously control, you can — with the right preparation and knowledge — use it to help you be more productive and build better habits (or stop bad ones.)
Here’s a simple example of the cognitive unconscious in action that happened just the other day:
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The Cognitive Unconscious In Action
I keep a small tire-pressure gauge handy in the glove compartment of my car.
As I was filling up for gas recently I used it to perform one of my like twice yearly tire pressure checks (I’m not a very responsible car owner.)
I jotted down the pressure of each tire in Evernote, noting that the passenger side rear tire was a little low, and set a reminder to fill it up the next time I go out.
The entire process took 5 minutes.
Then, about 3 days later I was having a casual, sarcastic conversation with my friend about our personal tendencies and shortcomings.
He told me that I’m the type of guy where “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And even it is broke, don’t fix it.”
Basically I’m a little stubborn.
To which I responded: “and you’re the type of guy where if your car’s tire pressure is low, you’ll just buy a whole new car!”
Is stand-up comedy my future career path? Certainly not.
But after that conversion I began to ponder why, exactly, I made that specific joke. Surely there are many other metaphors I could’ve used, and I’m not a “car guy” by any stretch of the imagination, so there was no reason for me to make that specific connection.
And then it hit me like a disapproving grandmother’s backhand to the forehead.
The only reason I used that metaphor is because I checked the tire pressure on my car a few days earlier, and for some reason my unconscious brain pulled on that experience, which was apparently floating somewhere in my long-term memory, to make the joke.
It Sounds Harmless, But There Are Big Consequences
What this story illustrates is that we are products of the fine balancing act going on between our conscious and unconscious minds.
Just as checking my tire pressure had a domino effect on my behavior days later, your behavior is constantly being influenced by unseen and long-forgotten stimuli, like the invisible strings of a puppeteer.
Put another way, your brain is like a giant iceberg slowly drifting into the North Atlantic.
To passengers on nearby ships it may look like an ominous wall of ice dozens of feet tall, but the truth is that the majority of the iceberg is submerged underwater, and that the passengers are only seeing the top 10% or so.
Research over the past several decades has determined that your brain is just like that iceberg, and that most of its processing is being done beneath the level of consciousness.
For example, think about all of the autonomic functions you’re performing right now:
- you’re regulating your breathing and lung contractions
- your sweat glands are activating to modify your body temperature
- you’re flexing stabilizer muscles in your neck and back
- you’re holding your jaw shut while you read.
Your unconscious mind is working all the time in tandem with your conscious mind, and even though you don’t realize it, it’s constantly absorbing the sights, smells, sounds, and other stimuli around you.
My favorite example of the unconscious mind at work comes from an experiment by the Swiss Psychologist Eduard Claparede.
Claparede worked with a woman who had suffered severe short-term memory loss and couldn’t remember anything that happened to her only a few moments before.
So as an experiment Claparede hid a pin needle between his fingers and pricked her palm when they shook hands.
The woman recoiled in pain but quickly forgot about the incident because of her short-term memory loss.
Moments later, Claparede went to shake her hand again but this time the woman hesitated, although she was unable to explain exactly why.
When Claparede pressed her for an answer she finally said that she believed some people hid pin needles between their fingers, even though she couldn’t recall being stuck herself.
Her unconscious mind was paying attention and had saved her even when she couldn’t consciously describe why.
Although you don’t have short-term memory loss, several experiments have demonstrated that you have no idea how much of an influence your unconscious mind has on, or when it affects, your behaviors, and that when pressed for a reason you’ll usually confabulate and just make something up like the woman in Claparede’s experiment did.
Now, you might be thinking:
“Ok Great, But What Does This Have To Do With Habits?”
The point is that every single piece of stimulus affects you in some way, even if you don’t consciously recognize it, because your unconscious mind is always running (even when you’re asleep, by the way.)
So when you’re building new habits or getting rid of old ones, you need to pay very close attention to every single piece of stimulus you’re absorbing; nothing is too small to ignore.
This realization alone is HUGE, and should cause you to reevaluate everything you do.
Every item in your house, every show you watch on Netflix, every bit of information you read, every song you listen to, everything you eat, everything you smell, and every person you interact with is influencing your unconscious mind and thus affecting your thoughts and behaviors.
Your brain’s working memory/short-term memory can only hold around 7 pieces of information at a time, so at the very least all of these stimuli are clogging your head and affecting the range of thoughts you have in the present, and at the worst they’re priming you for some behavior in the future that you won’t be able to trace back to the source.
Ever heard of the saying:
Whoever said that may not have realized it, but they were referring to the brain’s cognitive unconscious and its propensity to absorb stimuli and then repeat the learned behaviors, given enough repetition.
If you’re trying to lose weight, for example, and you watch a program that usually flashes candy commercials, then you’re unconsciously priming yourself for a “cheat meal.”
In psychology, priming is when a stimulus affects your response to a future stimulus without your knowledge.
It may not be tomorrow, or the next day, but because you’ve been primed chances are that you’re eventually going to succumb to temptation and sink your teeth into a sweet sugary snack.
Now, priming is something that happens on the unconscious level which means that by definition you can’t consciously control it.
But, what you can control (to a certain extent) is how you’re priming yourself.
In other words, you can make sure that you’re not negatively priming yourself by meticulously selecting and organizing every piece of your controllable environment.
This is important because if you’re not negatively priming yourself then your chances of successfully building new habits and routines, or getting rid of old ones, dramatically increases.
Of course, if you can positively prime yourself to accomplish your habits then that’s even better.
Going back to the losing weight example, here are some simple ways you can prime yourself to live a healthy lifestyle:
- leave a workout band or miniature foam weight somewhere that’s easily noticeable (as opposed to a shelf or closet)
- place healthy food on your kitchen counter where it’s impossible to miss
- subscribe to sports or fitness channels on YouTube and only turn on the notification bell for those channels
- adjust your normal commute so that you just happen to pass by a gym
- purchase a fragrance that reminds you of exercise and dab a small bit on yourself in the morning
The goal is to subtly influence your unconscious mind to think about exercise and healthy living.
Although the efficacy of positively priming yourself is debatable, I’m a big believer that you sure as hell can avoid negatively priming yourself, so I’ll conclude this article with some practical examples.
How To Avoid Negatively Priming Yourself
Have a clean workspace; physical messiness primes mental clutter
Avoid complaining or “venting” as often as possible, research shows that venting exacerbates negative emotions and is not cathartic
Avoid “trending” or “promoted” stories on social media, these are usually designed to be attention magnets and dull your thinking
Fill the air with an aroma that you associate with success or hard work
Change your computer and phone backgrounds to something that’s not distracting like a solid color
Remove games and unnecessary apps from your phone; this removes both distractions and clutter
Limit the number of mobile notifications you receive per day (done in your phone’s settings)
Avoid sensationalized news stories designed to trigger an emotional reaction
Replace artificial snacks with natural sugary alternatives like grapes, bananas, and apples
Avoid most comment sections on social media like the plague, most often they distract your mind with garbage information
Avoid dark and dreary spaces; infuse your area with more light
Unfollow all social media accounts not related to your specific purpose
Avoid placing alcohol or drugs in plain sight
If you feel yourself getting lethargic, change environments quickly (for example, move to another room or table)
These are some simple strategies you can use to avoid priming yourself for negativity and laziness.
In a future article I’ll share strategies for priming yourself for positivity and success. Make sure to subscribe to the M³ newsletter to be updated when it’s out!
Overall, never underestimate the power of your cognitive unconscious, it is the oldest, most developed, and most powerful part of your brain. Remember that it absorbs stimuli like a black hole, so you must take special care not to accidentally prime yourself with negativity.
It may sound trivial now, but this could have a huge effect on your habits and routines in the near future.