Unconscious thinking

If you have a problem to solve you should think about it right? Not necessarily.The conscious human mind has a very limited processing capacity. The traditional solution to this problem is to limit incoming information to only the most relevant data. It is also conventional wisdom that the longer you think about something the better your response. However, a recent experiment found quite the opposite. The more that people thought about something the more inclined they were to assemble irrelevant information and the less accurate their predictions became as a result. The implication is obviously that we should think about things less, either meaning that we should rely more on instant feelings and intuition or else defer to our unconscious mind. In other words sleep on it.

The power of intuition is of course nothing new. The question here though is whether extensive unconscious thought can make our intuition more reliable. It’s still early days (and nights) but the initial research seems to be saying yes. So what’s the takeaway here? Simply that we should use our conscious mind to collect data but then not think about it. We should allow our unconscious mind to digest the information and then follow our gut feeling.

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2 Responses to Unconscious thinking

  1. Ref: Harvard Business Review (US) February 2007 ‘When to sleep on it’,
    A. Dijksterhuis.

  2. subpixel says:

    The notion of having a “gut feeling” has, in itself, been considered as your physical gut being an extension of your brain. It is part of your nervous system, and there doesn’t appear to be any good reason to exclude its ‘knowledge’/process(ing) as part of your mind/consciousness.

    Back to whether you should “think about” a problem or not to solve it, that might depend on what you consider the “thinking” to be. If you need to sketch diagrams, solve equations and so on, do these things count as “thinking about the problem”?.. because it could be without taking these analytical steps it might be (extremely unlikely) that the solution could present itself.

    I think the trick is that when you have done all the preparation / research about the problem and you reach a point where you can’t decide on something, or can’t see some connection, THEN you let your unconscious mind find the pattern, the unexpected connection, or whatever it is that your active mind is stopping you from noticing (often due to biased thinking about what the solution might be, other times because you have no idea yet what the solution is).


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