Conscious vs. Unconscious Brain Function


Are you in control? Ask yourself that question. Are you really in control of your life? Of your thoughts, your emotions, your actions. Do you feel like you are making conscious decisions in your life? Or could you be a little unconscious in your behaviors? 

You may be running on autopilot a bit because the vast majority of brain activity occurs below our conscious awareness. Everything from breathing to digestion to motor control to emotions – all occurring without us having to “will” that with our brains.

Take a minute to reflect on all of the things in your life that your brain takes care of for you unconsciously. Dare I say it, but maybe your drive to work? You don’t have to consciously think about most of the movements of your arms and legs… turning the car on… moving the steering wheel… pressing the brake pedal… it’s all muscle memory.

Or how about your last game of catch with your child. Did you consciously move your legs… or think about your throwing mechanics… or calculate the trajectory of the ball… of course not. It wasn’t conscious. It was automatic!  And pretty amazing.

Most of the time, just like with these motor functions, the parts of our brains associated with emotion are operating without our conscious awareness too. This should come as no surprise. We’re quite emotional beings. And all too often we act on emotional instinct. Yes, we can consciously affect our emotions, but when we are not in tune with or aware of our internal states of being, our emotional brains are running the show. 

The Unconscious Emotional Brain

The unconscious emotional parts of the brain are fast and extremely powerful. They often override the conscious, logical parts of the brain. So many times we do things because we feel like it or because it feels good, not because we’ve used our better judgment. Our emotions drive much of our behavior, and the parts of the brain involving our emotions act mostly unconscious. Pretty scary if you think about it. 

So here’s the challenge we face: If we don’t take conscious action to manage our emotional brains, and reduce the stress in our lives, it becomes harder and harder to use our logical brains to keep our emotions in check. It’s a vicious cycle because the functioning of the logical brain is severely hampered by chronic stress. 

But there is hope! We can become more conscious and better manage our emotional brains with techniques like mindfulness, meditation, journaling and cognitive restructuring (all described on this platform).

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