Shortly after my previous post, Trust you gut, I read about the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. Both my conscious and my subconscious mind told me to purchase it. It took me only two days to finish the book.
Gladwell makes essentially the same point as I did in my previous post. In his words, much of our thinking happens behind a “locked door”: you can only sense the outcome, but not where it came from. If you try to figure out why you took that particular decision, only nonsense will come out. If you try to follow the reasoning while your subconscious is deciding, your conscious thoughts appear to interfere with it, and the subconscious is essentially disabled.
This subconscious reasoning is not magic. It relies on subtle clues that are too numerous for your conscious mind to process, and on tacit knowledge that comes from previous experience. For example, I am quite good at troubleshooting computer problems, but only if I'm there to witness them. If somebody tells me “my computer is doing this-and-this, do you know how to fix it?” I can give some general pointers, but it's only at the keyboard that I really get the insights. Not only the text of an error message is meaningful to me, but also its looks, its responses and the precise thing I was doing at the moment it popped up. It's not magic, it's simply lots of experience. And no, I will not fix your computer.
Of course Gladwell took much more time for his research than I did for my blog post, and he also gives examples of situations where you shouldn't trust what your subconscious tells you. For example, when you are in a dangerous situation, your mind goes into a state that psychologists call “arousal”. It shuts down parts of the brain that are deemed non-essential at that moment, including the one that recognises emotions on human faces. This explains why police officers shot a man because they thought he had a gun, while in fact he thought he was being robbed and reached for his wallet in mortal fear.
Whether you like it or not, a lot of our thinking happens subconsciously. I think that we are not aware of over 99% of our own thinking, our consciousness being just a flimsy layer on top of that. I pulled that number straight out of my arse, of course. But my arse may well be a lot smarter than you'd think …