Harvesting the Unconscious and Hacking Your Brain

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who believes that they have full, conscious control over their decisions is either hopelessly naïve or lacking in self-observation faculties. While we have conscious thought and the ability to make some decisions, research has shown the power of our subconscious in driving us towards certain behaviors and actions. Here’s a simple thought experiment. Imagine you’re trying to lean out for the summer, so you’re eating a low-carb diet. You’re sitting at home and think to yourself: “Wow, I could really go for some nachos right now” (or ice cream, or chocolate, or whatever it is for you). Unfortunately for you, suddenly a knock comes on that door and your neighbor comes in with some fresh, warm nachos. How likely do you think it is that your conscious self, which has decided to eat healthy for a bit, could resist that? I’d give it about 20% on a good day, if I’m generous.

Our brains are incredibly complex and powerful, but the high-level human part composes a very small fraction of the overall mass. So what’s the rest of our brain doing? Well, it’s keeping us alive, making habit or instinct-driven choices that would have been beneficial to keeping our ancestors alive and producing offspring (things like: don’t eat bad smelling meat or don’t try to take down that mammoth unarmed.). When we put all these parts of our brains into a modern world and we start to have trouble. We have more (and more highly palatable) food than we could ever need, instant access to adrenaline spiking entertainment, and amazingly comfortable couches, just to name a few temptations of modern living.

Given these set of issues, what can we do about it? Admitting that we don’t have full conscious control over our decisions opens up a path of action: use the conscious brain to guide the subconscious. This is what I like to refer to as harvesting the subconscious. You plant a seed of change with the conscious brain and then let the subconscious behave as it will. Trying to fight the subconscious with the conscious is like driving around with the hand brake on. When we stop trying to fight it and decide to work within the realities of our brains, we stop wasting a lot of energy. Hard habit changes will still require will-power and energy, but this can help guide the process of building new habits.

Some examples of this could be:

  • You want to start following the Paleo diet: use your conscious decision making to remove all the non-paleo food from your house. This forces your hungry, habit driven subconscious to choose from a subset of foods to eat when it gets ravenous. You’re going to make better decisions more often than if you still had cupcakes on the counter.
  • You want to start working out regularly: find a workout partner. This conscious hack gives your subconscious multiple signals. Most people have a very strong desire to socialize and another strong desire not to disappoint a social connection.

This same set of principles can be set up for any desired habit change. Consider how to set up systems which will:

  • Reward success
  • Discourage failure
  • Limit choices to the desired set

When you stop fighting how your biology works and build an accurate model of your mind, you can use that knowledge to do powerful things. If anyone is looking to improve their understanding of their subconscious mind, I recommend checking out Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious.

Please play around with the concept and let me know in the comments if it works or doesn’t for you or any creative mind-hacks you come up with using it. Please share the post if you enjoyed it. Good luck and have fun!

2 thoughts on “Harvesting the Unconscious and Hacking Your Brain

  1. Jeff, it is really amazing the ability I have to sabotage myself – or whatever other word people want to use that doesn’t sound so negative. A lot of times I find myself falling for other habits that are different and just as bad as the old ones, just making it harder to identify and giving me a false sense of accomplishment because “I got rid of that bad habit”. On the other hand, I made a conscious decision to look for the good side of everything and accept that the good side might not be available to me when I look for it, but it exists. So, even though my first thought was to ask “WTF is wrong with me?” I have decided to ask “What is right with me?” and just go with that.
    Great post. I’m certainly sharing it!!


  2. Thanks Paula!

    That sounds like a good direction to go in. I find when I beat myself up less, I actually get more done, so looking at what you’re doing right and not sweating the little things is a good plan.

    Also, I’d say that there’s nothing wrong with realizing that a new habit isn’t where you want to be either. So long as you don’t get stuck with a habit after you realized it’s not what you want, I’d call that progress. You can’t know what the future will hold, so don’t worry if you haven’t figured out everything ahead of time.


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