by Bruce Lipton
“The subconscious mind is an astonishingly powerful information processor that can record perceptual experiences (programs) and forever play them back at the push of a button. Interestingly, many people only become aware of their subconscious mind’s push-button programs when their own “buttons are pushed” by the actions of others. Actually, the entire image of pushing buttons is far too slow and linear to describe the awesome data processing capacity of the subconscious mind. It has been estimated that the disproportionately larger brain mass providing the subconscious mind’s function has the ability to interpret and respond to over 40 million nerve impulses per second (Norretranders, 1998). In contrast, the diminutive self-conscious mind’s prefrontal cortex only processes about forty nerve impulses per second. As an information processor, the subconscious mind is one million times more powerful than the self-conscious mind.
In contrast to its computational wizardry, the subconscious mind has only a marginal aptitude for creativity, best compared to that of a precocious five-year-old. While the self-conscious mind can express free will, the subconscious mind primarily expresses prerecorded stimulus-response “habits.” Once a behavior pattern is learned—such as walking, getting dressed, or driving a car—those programs become automatic habits in the subconscious mind, meaning you can carry out these complex functions without paying any attention to them.
While the subconscious mind can run all internal systems and chew gum at the same time, the much smaller self-conscious mind can juggle only a small number of tasks simultaneously. Although its ability for multitasking is physically constrained, the trained self-conscious mind is quite adept at “single-tasking.” It is the organ of focus and concentration. It was once thought that some of the body’s involuntary functions, such as the regulation of heartbeat, blood pressure, and body temperature, were beyond the control of the self-conscious mind. However, yogis and other adept practitioners have clearly demonstrated that the mind can indeed control presumed “involuntary” functions. Most of us have experienced how mind controls such functions when we become excited, happy, or sad while watching a movie or awaken from a scary dream, wet with perspiration and our hearts pounding. A vivid imagination controls autonomic functions as much as real events.
The subconscious and self-conscious minds work as a marvelous tandem tag team. The subconscious mind’s role is to control every behavior that is not attended to by the self-conscious mind. For most of us, the self-conscious mind is so preoccupied with thoughts about the past or the future, or engaged with some problem in our imagination, that we leave the day-to-day, moment-to-moment “driving” to the subconscious mind. Cognitive neuroscientists reveal that the profoundly more powerful subconscious mind is responsible for 95 to 99 percent of our cognitive activity and therefore controls almost all of our decisions, actions, emotions, and behaviors (Szegedy-Maszak, 2005).
The most powerful and influential behavioral programs in the subconscious mind were acquired during the formative period between gestation and six years of age. Now here’s the catch—these life-shaping subconscious programs are direct downloads derived from observing our primary teachers: our parents, siblings, and local community. Unfortunately, as psychologists are keenly aware, many of the perceptions acquired about ourselves in this formative period are expressed as limiting and self-sabotaging beliefs (Lipton, 1998, 2001).
Unbeknownst to most parents, their words and actions are being continuously recorded by their children’s minds. Since the role of the mind is to make coherence between its programs and real life, the brain generates appropriate behavioral responses to life’s stimuli to assure the “truth” of the programmed perceptions. Let’s apply this understanding to real-life behavior: Consider that you were a five-year-old child throwing a tantrum in a department store over your desire to have a particular toy. In silencing your outburst, your father reprimands you with his often-repeated response, “You don’t deserve things!” You are now an adult and in your self-conscious, thinking mind you are considering the idea that you have the qualities and power to assume a position of leadership at your job. Remember, while in the process of entertaining this positive thought in the self- conscious mind, programs in your more powerful subconscious mind are automatically managing all of your behaviors. Since your fundamental behavioral programs are those derived in your formative years, your father’s rebuke that “you do not deserve things” may become the subconscious mind’s automated directive. So while you are conjuring up wonderful thoughts of a positive future and not paying attention to the current moment, your subconscious mind automatically engages self-sabotaging behaviors to assure that your reality matches your program of “not deserving.”
When the self-conscious mind is engaged in thought, it rarely observes the automatic behaviors generated by the subconscious mind. Consider the significance of this common reality: Let’s say you have a friend Mary whom you’ve known since childhood. Being familiar with her and her family so long, you recognize that Mary’s behavior closely resembles that of her mother. Then one day you casually remark, “You know, Mary, you’re just like your mom.” Mary backs away in shock, indignant that you suggest she is like her mother. “How can you say something so ridiculous?” she demands. The cosmic joke is that everyone else can see that Mary’s behavior resembles her mom’s except Mary. Why? Simply because when Mary is engaging the subconscious behavioral programs she downloaded in her youth from observing her mom, her self-conscious mind is preoccupied in thought and she’s not paying attention. At those moments, her automatic subconscious programs operate without observation; hence they are unconscious. Only rarely do we observe our unconscious behavior—and it is usually a shock when we do.
Consequently, most of our personal and cultural problems arise from the belief that we are running our lives with our conscious desires and aspirations. “This is what I want from life. I want to do all these wonderful things.” Yet our lives usually don’t match our intentions; as a result there is a tendency to think, “I can’t get the things that I want, the world is not providing them. The Universe is against me!” Generally, the reason we fail to get what we desire is not because the Universe does not want us to succeed, but because we undermine our own efforts with “invisible” limiting behaviors. Unfortunately, our fundamental subconscious programs were acquired by observing the behavior of others (e.g., parents, family, community, TV), people who may not share our personal goals and aspirations. While our conscious minds are trying to move us toward our dreams, unbeknownst to us, our subconscious programs may be simultaneously shooting ourselves in the foot and impeding our progress.
We have all been shackled with emotional chains wrought by dysfunctional behaviors programmed by the stories of the past. However, the next time you are talking to “yourself” with the hope of changing sabotaging subconscious programs, it is important to realize the following information. The subconscious mind is simply a “record-playback” mechanism that downloads experiences and programs them as “behavioral tapes.” There is no thinking, conscious entity controlling subconscious programs; this autopilot mind is basically a stimulus- response reflex mechanism. Using reason to communicate with your subconscious mind in an effort to change its behavior would essentially have the same influence as trying to change a program on a cassette tape by talking to the tape player. In neither case is there an entity in the mechanism that will respond to your dialogue.
Positive affirmations and positive thinking are not that effective in reprogramming limiting beliefs. Positive thoughts are generated by the conscious mind, a tiny processor that controls the system less than 5 percent of the time. If programs in the subconscious mind do not support the intentions of the conscious mind, which will win out? Positive thinking is a good idea, much better than negative thinking, yet while one is engaging the conscious mind to create positive thoughts, the subconscious mind with its limiting and self-sabotaging programs is running the show! Consequently, positive thinking does not necessarily improve the situation for most people.
One of the most important points to make is that subconscious programs are not fixed, unchangeable behaviors. We have the ability to rewrite our limiting beliefs and in the process take control of our lives. However, to change subconscious programs requires the activation of processes other than engaging in a running dialogue with the subconscious mind. One of the more ancient processes of taking control of your life is to be fully present and use your creative conscious mind to control behavior, rather than rely on the “autopilot” habitual programs downloaded into your subconscious mind. For example, the next time you are driving and come to a stoplight, pause for a moment and listen to the monologue that is continuously emanating from your mind. Most of the information is either a rehashing of the past or expectations about your future.
Psychologists suggest that most of these thoughts are negative and redundant, with 95 percent of them arising from perceptions programmed in the subconscious mind. As mentioned earlier, the function of the brain is to create coherence between its programs and the life you experience. When you have the opportunity to “listen” to your thoughts, realize that their content is greatly influencing your future expectations. Increasing consciousness by being an observer of your thoughts is a foundational principle of Buddhism.
Amazingly, the power of thought is also fully recognized by the principles of quantum physics, a science that acknowledges the participation of the observer in the creation of reality. This profound conclusion is originally derived from many experiments that attempted to identify the “true” character of Nature’s fundamental building blocks—were they made of immaterial waves (energy) or were they physical particles (matter)? This is an “either-or” solution since something cannot be both physical and nonphysical. The surprising answer to their quest: if the scientist created an experiment that registered particles, they were particles; if the scientist created an experiment to detect waves, they were waves. Simple conclusion: “The observer creates the reality!” This role of mind in creating reality was recently underscored in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. In an article entitled “The Mental Universe,” Richard Conn Henry, professor of physics at the Johns Hopkins University, concludes, “The universe is immaterial— mental and spiritual. Live and enjoy” (Henry, 2006). It is a scientific reality that thoughts influence the material world!
When the subconscious mind provides for most of our thoughts, then our lives are primarily shaped by our developmental experiences, including behaviors and attitudes acquired from others (e.g., parents, family, and community) (Lipton, 2001). However, if we keep our self-conscious mind focused upon the present moment, rather than letting it wander into the past or future, we can actively control our mind by using thoughts that empower ourselves and lead us to our desired intentions and aspirations.”