Exploring the conscious and the unconscious mind

Written by
Dr Dalton Kehoe

18 Apr 2016

18 Apr 2016 • by Dr Dalton Kehoe

Always of two minds we never ride alone

Our lives are run by our brain, a processor sending one quadrillion instructions per second through a network of brain cells and neurons.

Our brain creates somewhere around 1,000 trillion synapses to store this tsunami of information. Each thing we know is embodied in a separate network of these neural connections. 

We naturally assume that all this structure represents our conscious mind – thinking and speech – that our brain is our conscious mind. Philosophers have relied on this rational “single minded” view to explain and criticise human behaviour for over 2000 years. Rationality became a cultural ideal. As such, it’s the foundation of our basic model of managerial decision-making and communication.


Our two minds

Thirty years of neuropsychological research has revealed that the fully rational mind is mostly an illusion. Our brain has two minds: (1) a word-driven conscious mind that we know, because we think and speak with it, (2) and an emotion-driven unconscious mind that we don’t know because it operates wordlessly. Our two minds are located in two different parts of the brain and must work together to create our everyday reality. 

Rather than continuing to name our minds as unconscious and conscious, I’m going to use Jonathan Haidt’s visual metaphor – the Elephant and the Rider - to describe them. Why? Because the picture of a five-ton working elephant (the unconscious/emotional mind) being directed by the 110-pound rider with a pointy stick (the conscious/rational mind) instantly portrays the differences in their size and power and exemplifies the core of their working relationship – deeply learned habits. Moreover, these habits, once revealed, show the limits of rationality. The Rider evolved to serve the Elephant, not the other way around. 

Our Rider mind is seated in the frontal lobes of the cerebral cortex – right behind the forehead. Called the pre-frontal cortex – this area houses the brain's speech, reflective thought, control functions, and our sense of self.  Its ability to create “if this - then this” possibilities, before deciding how to act, makes us unique in the creature world.  And it allows us to believe that the Rider mind stands alone in control of our thought processes, yet this can't be so for most of our thinking.  

The Rider processes information very slowly - about 40 bits of information per second. It can only work well when there’s enough time, not too much data and we choose to spend the bodily energy required for deliberate thought. Why? During deliberate thought, the Rider burns more glucose than any other organ in the body. That’s why we feel tired after doing our taxes. Taking the time and expending the energy required for deliberate thought in everyday interactions would make us look like we’re part of the zombie apocalypse. Halting and slow.

Normal thought and speech must appear to be fluent and responsive. To serve its two purposes, the Rider’s needs to know “what’s going on, what’s going to happen next and how we’re being treated” in the next moment, so we can respond with flow – as competent speakers. This requires the speed and the intervention of our Elephant mind.

Daniel Kahneman suggests this as he introduces the two minds in Thinking Fast and Slow. When we’re asked what we’re thinking we always have an answer because we assume that our momentary conscious thought is built on a previous conscious thought. Not so.

"Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there. You cannot trace how you came to the belief that there is a lamp on the desk in front of you, or how you detected a hint of irritation in your spouse’s voice on the telephone, or how you managed to avoid a threat on the road before you became consciously aware of it. The mental work that produces impressions, intuitions, and many decisions goes on in silence in our mind." Daniel Kahneman 

They’re the product of the Elephant mind. It supplies our conscious thoughts most of the time because thinking is hard and our Rider is lazy. Our brain has evolved to conserve mental energy and to avoid leaving us “lost in thought” in everyday situations. So, without us consciously noticing, the Rider turns over our moment-to-moment thinking and decision-making to the Elephant’s entirely different approach to making decisions - the subject of my next article.

  1. Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Penguin Group, p. 4.
  2. Kahneman, D. op. cit. Chap. 3.