We spend most of our time on autopilot. Everything we do, from breathing to walking, to eating and having a conversation, occurs automatically as a way for our brain to preserve energy for what it considers more important tasks. This is the subconscious mind at work.
Freud developed the 3-level model of the mind, which is often represented as an iceberg: the conscious as the tip, the subconscious just beneath the surface, and the unconscious, buried below. The subconscious mind makes up 95% of the brain, while the conscious mind only 5% (Szegedy-Maszak, 2005). If we can learn how to access our subconscious, we have the power to unlock our full potential.
The Reticular Activating System
The Reticular Activating System (RAS) is a network of neurons that act as a filtering system between the conscious and subconscious mind. As our brains cannot absorb everything that is happening around us, the RAS controls the information that goes into our consciousness. It exists as a mechanism for survival. If we had to consciously think about every small action we take throughout the day, our energy would be depleted for when we need to be alert.
How Can We Use the RAS to Change Behaviours?
The RAS reinforces behaviours we have learned to do automatically. To change a behaviour, the neural pathways need to be reprogrammed to create a new response. For example, if we want to start waking up earlier but have the belief that we’re not a morning person, it will be difficult to suddenly start waking up earlier. We have to first become aware of the thought that may be holding us back—‘I’m not a morning person’—and shift that to a narrative of why we might enjoy the mornings, what we want to achieve by waking up earlier, and repeat the action until it becomes automatic.
This is also known as neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to rewire pathways to create a new behaviour response. Researchers have also concluded that to truly change a habit, we have to see the value of the new goal and the reward. So, how can we begin to bring the subconscious into awareness, shift our habits, and set ourselves onto the path of success?
The first way is through visualisation. Visualisation has long been used by top performers and athletes competing for the Olympics to prepare for the day of the events. It requires imagining the exact conditions you will be in, what it’s going to feel, smell, look like, and envisioning how you’re going to succeed.
As Frank Niles Ph.D., explains: ‘visualization works because neurons in our brains, those electrically excitable cells that transmit information, interpret imagery as equivalent to a real-life action. When we visualize an act, the brain generates an impulse that tells our neurons to “perform” the movement. This creates a new neural pathway that primes our body to act in a way consistent to what we imagined.’ In other words, if we see it, we can believe it.
Take the Time to Pause
Meditation is a powerful tool to bring the subconscious into awareness. Studies have shown that practising mindfulness and meditation can help with depression, chronic pain, anxiety, and a variety of other mental and physical conditions. Meditation also aids in rewiring the brain’s circuits by increasing the amount of grey matter, which improves emotional regulation and impulse control. It gives us more control over our subconscious behaviours and leads to better decision-making that aligns with our goals.
Write Down Thoughts
Since the subconscious mind absorbs information that the conscious mind does not have the capacity to process, it contains a wealth of data, waiting to be accessed. Many high-achieving individuals swear by morning pages, which is the daily practice of freewriting in the morning before starting the day. As you write, it’s important not to edit or get caught up in spelling and grammar. This is the time to see what may come up without the conscious mind interfering.
Journaling is also a great way to define our goals. Unlike morning pages, this is best to do at night before bed to clear the mind for sleep. By writing down what we want to accomplish, our goals for the future, and how we want to achieve them, we bring them into awareness.
Get Adequate Rest
We often underestimate the value of a good night’s rest. Sleep, however, is essential to giving our minds and bodies the time to reset; it is when the brain recharges and processes information from the day. In fact, studies have shown that having adequate sleep, seven to eight hours a night, improves memory, regulates metabolism, reduces fatigue, and improves cognitive and behavioural function. The subconscious mind is more likely to repeat old patterns if it’s running on empty.
Tapping into the subconscious and rewiring neural pathways takes time. Change will not occur overnight. By becoming aware of our subconscious thoughts and behaviours, implementing techniques such as visualisations, meditation, journaling, and getting enough rest, we will soon begin to see the positive impact on our daily lives.
Eugene, Andy R, and Jolanta Masiak. ‘The Neuroprotective Aspects of Sleep.’ MEDtube science vol. 3,1 (2015): 35-40.
Berkman, Elliot T. ‘The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change.’ Consulting psychology journal vol. 70,1 (2018): 28-44.
Clarey, Christopher, ‘Olympians Use Imagery as Mental Training.’ The New York Times. February 22, 2014.
Luders E, Toga AW, Lepore N, Gaser C. ‘The underlying anatomical correlates of long-term meditation: larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of gray matter.’ Neuroimage. 2009 Apr 15;45(3):672-8.
Niles, Frank, Ph.D., ‘How to Use Visualization to Achieve Your Goals.’ Huffington Post. June 17, 2011.
Szegedy-Maszak, M., ‘Mysteries of the Mind: Your unconscious is making your everyday decisions.’ U.S. News & World Report, February 28, 2005.