Your first thought is your conditioning; your second thought is your choice.
Humans are conscious of 20% of our brains’ activity, with maybe another 5% that’s subconscious. The overwhelming majority of our brains’ activities are fully unconscious, not conscious at all. Movies and books have portrayed titillating and visually appealing consequences of 100% consciousness – but really consider this for a moment. Our brains are not independent agents; our consciousness emerges from not just our brains, but our bodies. Most of what our brains do is care and maintenance of our bodies. Another large part is devoted to “stored experience,” also known as prejudice.
If we were 100% consciously accessing all the processing in our brains, we would likely be catatonic. Seriously, think about everything that is going on in your body right now, just sitting and reading. Go ahead, I’ll wait…
How far did you get? Could you even name all your parts that are doing things?
Now, take a moment to thank your unconscious brain for taking care of all those complex, constant, careful tasks so you can enjoy sitting up and reading.
So, while it is not helpful to pull the recipe for all the biochemicals necessary to digest breakfast (including all the muscles and valves involved) every time into our conscious mind, it is very helpful to pull the pattern of our reaction to people we perceive as “other” into our awareness for evaluation and possibly adaptation. Our unconscious mind, while inaccessible to awareness, is quite adaptable and malleable to our choices. Thus growing up in a certain society with certain family members and friends will shape our personalities and choices for many years, but once our pre-frontal cortex has fully formed (approximately 23-25 years old) we have the capacity to choose, to confirm or deny all or part of what has shaped our first two decades of life.
If we know who is doing the choosing.
Our brains have evolved to protect, preserve, and procreate. To those ends, we store experiences – particularly ones that defy or countermand those primal goals – so we may more quickly react to safer resolutions when again faced with similar circumstances. What is peculiar to humans is our ability to instill experiences we have never had via our imaginations. It is through this amazing capacity that we learn to fear people we’ve never met, avoid dangerous plants and animals we’ve never encountered, and feel attracted to a set of characteristics in another person that we have never known. We are taught by individuals, media, and societies what is acceptable, desirable, and safe – in addition and contradiction to our own lived experiences. What becomes our worldview is not only shaped but created by our brilliantly adaptive unconscious mind.
[Let’s make a useful distinction here between “brain” and “mind.” The brain is our neuroprocessing, biological unit, and the mind is the result of those processes; however, our brain is not only contained in our skulls or relegated to our one organ named “brain.” Overwhelming biological research shows that we contain an intrinsic nervous systems, and thus neuroprocessing, in diverse organs – particularly our intestines (see Dr. Michael D. Gershon’s work on the “second brain”). Our thoughts are the end points of vast, systemic neuroprocesses that are collectively our known – and unknown – mind.]
Self-knowledge, the conscious act of pulling back the curtain or stepping to the side of the center stage production of who we are, is most of the conscious brain’s care and maintenance of our minds. Similar to what happens to people when they lose unconscious abilities to care and maintain their bodies (see the case of Ian Waterman documented by Dr. Jonathan Cole), when we don’t consciously care for and maintain our minds we cannot fully function in the world without outside support. We remain or become dependent, co-dependent, or pathological. Awareness and responsibility – the ability to respond – for our motivations and actions are markers of maturity, regardless of chronological age. As we take up adult activities and commitments, we gain choices. We can choose to continue with beliefs and behaviors that were given to us as part of conditioning (however intended), or we can investigate, experiment, and imagine other ways of being that may “feel right.” The feeling that precedes knowing is our nonconscious mind at work. How we interpret feeling states, the meaning our conscious mind puts to nonconscious thoughts/felts, determines our experience and contributes to our knowledge of self and others.