In search of the unconscious mind – We think less than we think

In a previous life, I studied cognitive psychology. I have always been intriged by the functioning of the brain and how it effects human behaviour. I experimented with eyetracking, implicit measurement through reaction times and EEG. During my internship at the neuropsychology department of the UZ Gent Hospital I even conducted an fMRI study in order to learn more about emotions. Given my background, I was therefore immediately enthusiastic when I saw the invitation for the Vlerick Informeel Lecture in cooperation with Baqmar about Neuromarketing.
How sure are you that you have total control over what you are doing? Even if you think you always know what you are doing, neuroscientists have discovered the opposite: there are many thought processes going on at the unconscious level. Not convinced? Check out the following movie where you see people playing with a ball. Count how many passes the white team makes. Ready?

People who carefully watched the movie, will have counted 14 passes. However, many people will probably not have seen that a black bear was also visible in the movie (if you do not believe me, watch the movie again).
Neuroscientists have discovered that the human brain actually consists of three layers: the reptile brain, the emotional brain and the smart brain.

  • The reptile brain, the oldest of the three layers, controls the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, breathing, body temperature and balance
  • The emotional (or limbic) brain is the container of all our pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Based on our past experiences, it helps us to judge the current situation.
  • The smart brain (or neocortex) is the rational brain that is typical for humans. It controls language, memory, abstract thought, imagination, reasoning, decisions and many more ‘intelligent’ functions.

From the three layers in the brain, humans are only ‘aware’ of processes in the neocortex. However, the unconscious brains also have an important influence on our behaviour. In our head there are two routes that determine our decisions: a controlled route in our smart rational brain and a emotional route coming from the emotional brain. The two routes often conflict with each other. Consider the following situation: a boy is secretly in love with one of his friends. In normal circumstances, the neocortex brain controls his behaviour: since he is not sure that his love will be returned, he suppresses his feelings: the smart brains dominates the emotional brain and the controlled route is taken. However, if the boy has however drunk too much alcohol, he might declare his love anyway. Under the influence of alcohol, the smart brain can no longer inhibit the emotional brain which will direct the action. The latin saying ‘in vino veritas’ that says that the wine contains the truth is thus supported by neuroscience!

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