6
min to read
September 13, 2019

Blind to Our Blindness: The Power of the Unconscious

Dr. Sarah Sarkis

Dr. Sarah Sarkis

Dr. Sarkis is a licensed psychologist, writer and performance consultant living in Honolulu, Hawaii (though it won’t you take you long to realize she’s from Boston). She has a private practice where she works with individuals, groups and organizations. Dr. Sarkis emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment. Dr. Sarkis earned her master’s in psychology from Boston College and doctorate from George Washington University. She approaches psychological growth and change from an integrative perspective, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight- oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and mind/body techniques to help patients foster insight and access motivation. Dr. Sarkis has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, positive psychology and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected. She integrates these various modalities to bring you a modern interpretation on how to optimize human potential. Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Steven Kotler, Irvin Yalom, Howard Stern and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few. You can check out her blog, The Padded Room, on her website https://drsarahsarkis.com/blog-page/.

Welcome back to Shrink Wrap where we unravel the psychology of optimal performance.

I want you to ponder this list and think about what they all share in common Steve Jobs, political campaigns, the marketing industry and cult leaders. Do you know?They are all keenly aware that you are not aware of what you are not aware of. You don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, they are masters in leveraging the power of your unconscious mind. They have figured out the levers and widgets in the modern-day version of a Jedi Mind trick. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

Think about that for a minute. Don’t just read the words; digest them. Think about a single day in your life, the myriad of intersections where you make critical and what appear, on the surface, to be conscious choices. It’s actually staggering.

As Daniel Kahneman writes in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow “we can be blind to the obvious, and we are blind to our blindness." (pg.24). The power of our unconscious is in its invisibility.

We fancy ourselves mostly deliberate and rational creatures. We like to think that our conscious mind is the master of ceremonies. But the truth is that 95% of your brain activity originates from unconscious realms. This system, despite its vast invisibility, usually works out in our favor. Order prevails. But the dawn of overestimating that most of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are the brain child of consciousness is a thing of the past. The science is clear, the unconscious rules the roost.

This isn’t the unconscious of Freud anymore either. This one is complex, nuanced and integrated in to our ever-expanding knowledge of neurobiology.

Our brain, it turns out, is designed to operate this way. The unconscious is an integrated and covert network of neurobiologic processes that influence virtually every decision, thought, feeling and experience you have at the conscious level. Its tentacles are everywhere; its footprint, while stealth, is impressive. In fact, we couldn’t survive without it. Without the unconscious acting as a filter and way station, we would end up rocking in the corner. Decisions would collide, memory would be maxed, processing speed would screech to a halt. It would be a horror show.

Most of the time, the conscious and the unconscious minds are not in battle against each other.  They are, in fact, partners in crime. You can’t have a conscious thought that has not been touched by the elusive complexity of the unconscious. It is filtering and feeding your experiences-visual, perceptual, cognitive and psychological-filling in the gaps as it funnels data towards consciousness. In the unconscious there is no doubt or uncertainty. That’s a function of the analytic conscious mind. It also has a hair trigger. Before you could ever reason your way to a decision, the unconscious has shaped your trajectory. The unconscious feels like intuition, behaves like certainty and presents as conviction.

It’s rather remarkable if you truly consider the scope of its influence on us. But the unconscious is also beguiling and prone to cognitive errors and emotional biases.

Consider this: What do you think are the four main factors that influence our “buy in” of a concept, idea, proposal, information (regardless of industry)? What if I told you they are:

  • Make it legible (that’s why my title is in bold ink)
  • Keep it simple (that’s why I am trying desperately not to use big words)
  • Make it memorable (that’s why I just used alliteration)
  • Hope you have an easy last name to pronounce (50/50 on this one. It’s pronounced Sar-Kiss).  

Are you surprised that none of the items reference quality of work, analytic acumen, or any other cognitive skill we associated with the conscious mind? That’s the power of the unconscious and we understand more now than ever about it’s patterns, pitfalls and predilections.  

For example, how do we determine what information we metabolize as fact or truth in our lives? Much of how we make decisions and choices are based on the premise that we have ample information to manipulate and maneuver, like chess pieces. Most of the people I work with pride themselves as damn good decision makers. And they are, on some level. But ponder this- in the unconscious familiarity is not distinguished from truth. Remember the whole false news campaign in the 2016 election? Well, that is the perfect example of how this principle plays itself out at a global level. Neurobiologically, frequency and familiarity are what tip the unconscious scales towards awareness, not fact or truth.

That’s a pretty thin line that can be bypassed by advertising dollars. Turns out, fact or fiction barely even enters the equation before you have made unconscious calculations and choices that can turn the tides of time. That’s mind blowing to me.

Like I said, the unconscious fills in the gaps but it also leaves us vulnerable to cognitive and emotional blind spots, for which we are blind.

Add to this complexity that we also have a unique, yet intertwined, psychology that is interacting and influencing your unconscious. Sapiens are fascinating, fragile and fickle creatures. We require a shockingly long time in the proverbial nest before we can sufficiently survive on our own. Our survival depends on the virtue of others and the safety of the pack. Without it, we are doomed. And yet, we are easily bruised, emotionally and psychologically. And, we bruise others. These wounds shape us, they really do. And, they add flavoring, tendencies and patterns to your unconscious dynamics.

This too is universal even though each person’s expression is unique. I have never known someone who does not have an unconscious pattern of sabotage at the epicenter of their psychology, present company included.

No one can escape their past. Until you understand this aspect of your psyche, you will orbit endlessly around your own self-defeating patterns; blind to your own blindness.

As Leonard Mlodinow states in his groundbreaking book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, “we are highly invested in feeling different from one another—and superior—no matter how flimsy the grounds…and no matter how self-sabotaging that may end up being (pg. 174).”  

My goal is that you now see clearly the implications the unconscious has on us, at both the individual and organizational level. We can no longer afford to entertain the myth of ultimate agency. The evidence to the contrary is simply too compelling to ignore. Furthermore, none of this information is a secret. There are industries, campaigns and people who leverage the power of the unconscious in their favor every damn day. Most of us are sheep, entirely oblivious to our blindness. We do not know what we do not know. This is yet another compelling argument for why every organization should embed a CPO as the cornerstone of a corporate revolution.

The good news is, with knowledge, introspection and guidance you can become to be more aware.

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