As anyone who has ever been on a diet will know, as soon as you try not to think about something – chocolate, for example – it becomes virtually impossible to keep that thing out of your head. However, with a little willpower, you can at least keep that chocolate bar out of your belly. This demonstrates that we have far more control over our actions than our thoughts, and while that may not come as a great surprise, a new study has revealed that this lack of dominion over our consciousness goes much deeper than you might think.
The results of the study, which are published in the journal Acta Psychologica, are being used to support a new theory of consciousness as nothing more than a front for our subconscious. Under this paradigm, the waking mind is seen as a kind of window through which we become aware of the outcomes of our subconscious processes, but which plays no active role in creating these outcomes.
Lead researcher Ezequiel Morsella, who is among the pioneers of this theory, explained in a statement that this latest study indicates that “consciousness is passive, and that its contents are often generated unconsciously.”
The study itself plays on the concept of ironic processing, which refers to the fact that one is more likely to think about something they are trying not to think about. This is often demonstrated using the Reflexive Imagery Task (RIT), whereby participants are presented with pictures of objects and told not to think of the names of those objects.
It has often been suggested that this effect only applies to relatively automatic processes, such as recalling a learned association between an image and a word, and that more complex mental activities like performing calculations don’t simply enter our heads when we are trying to shut them out.
To challenge this assumption, the researchers taught a group of students to play a word manipulation game called Pig Latin, whereby the first letter of each word is moved to the end of the word and followed by the letters AY. So, for instance, COW becomes OW-CAY and FISH becomes ISH-FAY.
They were then presented with a series of words on a screen and told not to rearrange them into Pig Latin, but to press a button if they noticed these rearranged words automatically intruding on their thoughts.
The fact that the students were unable to keep the Pig Latin words from forming in their minds on 43 percent of occasions led Morsella to remark that “our study reveals that unintentional, unconscious processes can be more sophisticated than what has been thought before.”
The cogs and gears that produce our thoughts may be deep in our subconscious. Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Explaining this phenomenon, he and his colleagues posit that our thoughts are largely involuntary, occurring as a kind of reflex reaction to external stimuli, over which we have no “conscious” control. In other words, it is within the domain of the subconscious that our real thoughts occur, and the conscious mind is then capable only of viewing the “outputs” of this process.
However, this does not mean that consciousness is entirely redundant. Rather, it is what we use to reflect on our involuntary thought processes. For instance, while it may not be possible to avoid thinking about one’s desire for chocolate, one is then presented with a number of potential courses of action, which range from maintaining total abstinence to stuffing one’s face with forbidden goodness.
As conscious beings, we have freedom to decide which of these “action sets” to execute, which is what sets us apart from non-sentient things like machines and flowerpots. Plus, unlike them, we get to enjoy chocolate.