Don’t Overthink It—Tapping into the Cognitive Unconscious

How the brain is different than a computer

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Have you ever had a day where things seemed effortless? This is the power of the cognitive unconscious. Dr. Restak explains.

Brain concept
When processing a decision point, going with your first instinct and not overthinking it allows your brain to do its mental processing without you putting the brain’s work into conscious awareness. Photo By Vasin Lee / Shutterstock

Let the Brain Do Its Job

You may have heard that the brain operates like a computer, but that’s not true. According to Dr. Restak, we should not force the brain to work in counterproductive ways. Instead, we should lean into the cognitive unconscious, which is the mental processing that takes place outside of conscious awareness.

For example, when it comes to multiple-choice tests, some students will read the questions over and over, taking fine points and weighing them. However, for the well-prepared student, the best strategy is to simply read the question and choose the correct answer.

“The second example concerns my daughter,” Dr. Restak said. “I remember when she was a small child, I took her to an eye exam.”

Towards the end of the exam, the doctor put a very finely distinguished lens in front of one eye and asked her to compare lens A to lens B. When you get to the end of the exam, there’s hardly any difference at all. His daughter wanted to carefully think about which lens was the best option, and the doctor told her that she should just go with her first instinct and not overthink it.

In short, you shouldn’t try to micromanage your brain by giving it too much conscious direction. It might surprise you to know that the lion’s share of brain processing takes place unconsciously, as in when we’re dancing or driving a car. 

If you learn a new dance step, the worst thing you can do is become really actively aware of your feet and where they are. You’ve got to get into the rhythm of it—same thing with driving a car.

The Cognitive Unconscious

The cognitive unconscious is the main part of our mental processing. It starts at the neuron and extends upward to the level of everyday behavior. 

For example, neuronal responses in the primary auditory cortex are tuned to the personal meaning of the sound. The more important the sound, the more attuned the cell becomes. 

You’ve had the experience of being at a cocktail party; it’s a lot of people, and it’s noisy. You hear someone say your name across the room, and you say to the person you were just talking to, “Did you hear someone call my name?” 

They reply that they didn’t. They didn’t hear it because their brain isn’t attuned to the sound of your name.

This preferential recognition can be measured. One research study has found that our brain responds to the ring tone of your cell phone within 40 milliseconds of the first ring. That’s not true when hearing other cell phones’ rings.

Bringing in Technology

Both of these examples illustrate the concept of cognitive unconscious. However, just because our brains don’t work like computers doesn’t mean that we can’t take advantage of computers and other technology to enhance our brain function. 

Regarding the study on personal ring tones, Dr. Restak considered the fact that people usually select their own ringtones, which tends to reflect their personalities. He wondered what would happen if somebody else assigned a ringtone—would the cell phone owner still mentally pick it up in 40 milliseconds? He emailed the author of the study in Leipzig, Germany. 

“I said, ‘Let’s try to test it next time with an assigned ringtone,'” Dr. Restak said. “Within an hour, he got back to me and said, ‘I’ve already done that and came up with the same finding.’ My point here is that information exchange that could have taken days or weeks sped by in an hour.”

Therefore, while our brains and technology are not interchangeable, technology can certainly aid us in performing tasks more efficiently.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.