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Nizar Taki MD

Nizar Taki, November 13 2019

Selective Attention: Part Two

In the last post, we discussed how we can only focus on one thing at a time; our consciousness is limited to 40 bits of information per second. But our unconscious mind is constantly processing all the data that enters our brains from the environment, which can be upwards of 40 million bits per second. This is not a passive process. In fact, our unconscious is constantly sifting through this data to see what information is relevant to us. When it finds something that is relevant, it serves it up to our consciousness so we can pay attention to it. In other words, our unconscious has our back. 

This is why the cocktail party effect happens. 

The Cocktail Party Effect

Imagine that you're at a cocktail party. There are groups of people around the room having conversations, but you're focused on what your friend standing in front of you is saying to you, and all the other conversations are tuned out. But if someone were to say your name in a  nearby conversation, you would automatically transfer your focus from the conversation in front of you to the one in which your name was mentioned. How does this happen?

Were you listening to the other conversation at the same time as you were paying attention to your friend? 

Yes and No. You were only listening to your friend's conversation. Your unconscious, however was listening to every conversation in the room. 

It simply kept those other conversations out of your consciousness because they weren't relevant. But it was still actively listening to them to see if anything relevant to you appeared, at which point, it served up that information to your conscious mind. 

This is important to realize because it brings us to the other critical aspect of selective attention: our ability to use the vast processing capability of our unconscious to help us make decisions on how we move through the world. 

Think about it -  our unconscious is processing 40 million bits of data per second to create our conscious experience, most of which is out of reach of our consciousness. What would happen if we were able to make decisions not only based on the 40 bits per second we are conscious of, but based on all the data our unconscious has? 

 Because our unconscious mind has so much more bandwidth than our consciousness, it can give us the solutions to complex questions that would not be accessible if we used your conscious decision making processes. 

The ability of our unconscious to help us in making decisions has only recently been recognized, giving birth to Unconscious Thought Theory (UTT). 

As one author describes it, "Your conscious mind, according to this theory, is like a home computer on which you can run carefully written programs that return correct answers to limited problems, whereas your unconscious is like Google's vast data centers, in which statistical algorithms sift through terabytes of unstructured information, teasing out surprising useful solutions to difficult questions." (1) 

But very few of us actually take advantage of the incredible processing power of our unconscious. Instead we are taught to make decisions using only conscious reasoning and thought. 

So how can we learn to start listening to the guidance of the unconscious part of our minds? There are three steps. 

Step 1. Quiet Down the Conscious Mind Chatter

Our unconscious is a subtle voice that speaks to us just below the level of our consciousness. It's like a whisper that is easily drowned out by our conscious minds, which which can be likened to a television blaring loudly in the background. The first step to hearing the whispers is to turn down the loudly blaring TVs - our conscious thought process that prattle on in our heads like repetitive commercials 

It is a well known phenomenon that artists, inventors, and other creatives most frequently get insights in moments when they are relaxed and their conscious mind is disengaged, like on a walk or in the shower. This is because when the conscious mind is quiet, we can hear the ideas bubbling up from the unconscious. 

There will be more suggestions in later posts as to how to quiet your conscious mind, but for now, simply being aware of the conscious chatter in your head is enough to begin slowing it down. 

Step 2. Learn the Language of Your Unconscious

After turning down the "blaring TV" of our conscious minds, we must realize that our unconscious speaks to us in a different language than our conscious mind, and begin to get used to this language. As kids we were able to hear the language of the unconscious, like a second language we grew up with. But we were never encouraged to practice using it, so we forgot it. Now, as adults, we don't even recognize it for what it is. 

Our conscious mind speaks to us using thought, but what is the lost "second language" that our unconscious speaks to us in?

It's the language of emotion. Have you ever had a "gut feeling" about something? We call these things intuition. Notice them when they happen, and you will see that they are very much like feelings but more subtle. And they are very different than thoughts. 

You know as well as I do the times when you had an intuition about something - an inexplicable feeling that you should go somewhere or talk to someone without knowing exactly why. 

Perhaps you spoke to a person based on intuition alone, and ended up making a friend or partner for life. 

Or perhaps you ignored your intuition, and later experienced the crushing regret of realizing that something great would have happened if only you had trusted yourself. If you know what I'm talking about, then you know that not trusting yourself when you knew you were right is one of the worst feelings you can have. 

Step 3. Trust Your Unconscious by Acting on It

The above two steps mean nothing if we hear our unconscious intuitions yet don't act them. Yet so many people do exactly that - they feel their intuitions yet still decide to go against them by following their conscious reasoning. 

They can't be blamed - our entire life we have been asked to think things through rationally, to explain the decision we are going to make, to weigh the pros and cons. Unfortunately, these are all the purview of conscious decision-making. 

Relying on intuition means that by definition we will be unable to explain why we've decided something. This is the definition of an unconscious process. 

So if we're going to be able to rely on the most powerful decision-making mechanism we have available, we need to get over being able to "show our work" when we arrive at a decision. 

We need to get comfortable noticing and acting on the more subtle sources of information - the faint inklings and intuitions that percolate just below the level of our conscious awareness.  

The more we do this, the more we see that our unconscious can be trusted, and the better we get at hearing it and acting on it. We start feeling subtler and subtler intuitions, and seeing the positive effects of acting on those. Over time, our conscious mind begins to trust our unconscious, and they become allies. 

You start feeling like you have a super-power because you can make decisions and predict the future based on data that you and others can't see. 

But is it magic? No. You are leveraging the power of your unconscious, which is the processing power that creates your entire experience of reality. 


1. Newport, Cal. Deep Work. New York, Hachette Group Publishing, 2016.  

Written by

Nizar Taki

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