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Conscious vs subconscious minds: our brains explained

To understand our conscious vs subconscious minds, it's helpful to first talk about our brains.

The human brain evolved over many millions of years. It has grown from pea-sized in our early ancestors to the 1.5 kilogram (three pound) structure we see in modern humans. As the modern brain grew, it wrapped itself around the old one, like the rings on a tree, thus retaining many of the structural features of its earlier versions.

Our primal brain, also known as the reptilian brain, is located in the center of our heads, at the brain stem. This is the seat of our subconscious mind, and it goes about its business without our active involvement. Instinctive processes like digesting food, circulating blood, inhaling and exhaling air, healing wounds: all of these critical functions happen automatically, thanks to the primal brain, which never rests, and is always on the job.

conscious vs subconscious mind

The midbrain sits on top of the brain stem. It is younger than the primal brain, and is the home of structures that create and release hormones and neurochemicals, making it the seat of our emotions.

The cerebral cortex evolved more recently. It fills the space just behind our foreheads. This is the modern brain, home of our conscious mind, which does the things that make us human: deciding, calculating, reasoning, loving, enjoying music and laughter, and seeing connections. It fluctuates as our energy rises and falls throughout the day, running full bore when we need it most and shutting down and recharging while we sleep.

Our Two Minds

We can think of humans as being of two minds: a subconscious (or unconscious, arising from the primal or reptilian brain, and the midbrain), and a conscious mind (from the cerebral cortex).

The conscious mind controls executive functions: Our senses while awake, rational decision making, reasoning, and advanced cognitive capability. It imagines, laughs, loves, plans, and ruminates. It is where our hopes and dreams crystalize into desires. It takes in the world through our senses. Through consciousness, we develop a picture of our past, present, and future selves.

The subconscious (aka unconscious) mind runs the millions upon millions of essential functions that keep our bodies alive. Breathing, digesting food, circulating blood, repairing wounds, all happening without our conscious involvement. Rather miraculous!

The subconscious mind communicates through symbols. It connects us to universal intelligence, the unseen power that lies behind the veil. We experience this in our dreams when we sleep, and through sparks of inspiration that strike us throughout our waking hours.

The subconscious does not argue, and it can be reprogrammed. It accepts what it receives from the conscious mind, and can create a different reality for us. That's how the law of attraction works: the subconscious, energized with positive message from the conscious mind, aligns itself with unseen forces that make our desires real.

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Fast brain, slow brain

Our primal brain / subconscious mind works lightning fast, igniting quick reactions that don't require contemplation. This can be lifesaving in a crisis situation, as when activating our "fight or flight" response: See danger, flee danger.


Our conscious mind, in contrast, requires more processing energy and thus works more slowly than the subconscious. It's functions are not automatic, instead requiring active involvement of our powers of reasoning.

It goes through phases throughout the day depending on our levels of energy and motivation. It requires sleep to regenerate the stamina needed to perform its duties.

Conscious vs subconscious minds in conflict

Our subconscious and conscious don't always share the same priorities! The subconscious wants to keep us safe, so it pushes us toward the familiar. Crucially, some of those familiar things play out as habits or thought patterns that prevent us from progressing materially and emotionally.

In the language of personal growth and personal development, we call these limiting beliefs. These are programs that were encoded onto our subconscious at an early age, or following a traumatic event at any time in our lives. Because the young brain has undeveloped reasoning capacity, it accepts what it hears as factual and acts accordingly throughout its life. Traumatic events carry a high emotional charge, which can program the subconscious just as effectively.

Problems arise when the desires of the conscious, slow brain conflict with the patterns encoded into the subconscious, fast brain. For example, you may find yourself attracted to people of high status (due to their wealth, power, or physical appearance), and develop a conscious desire to move in their circles. A limiting belief that influences your feelings of worthiness, however, will prevent you from moving into their world with confidence. Instead, you might be plagued by feelings akin to "Oh, I couldn't possibly do that!", a limiting belief in action.

The conscious vs subconscious mind: who's in charge?

The fast brain can overpower the slow brain with devastating consequences. To illustrate, imagine you are driving through traffic, minding your own business, when suddenly someone cuts you off. Your fast brain takes information from your senses (in this case your eyes), determines there is danger, and reacts in an instant, flooding your system with adrenaline, and directing you to hit the brakes to avoid a collision, all in a fraction of a second.

So far, so good. Your primal brain did its job and kept you safe.

But what happens next? In our first scenario, and without thinking, you lash out at what you perceive to be an enemy, or a threat, with a low-level emotion: anger. You swear a few choice words and flip a middle finger at the other driver. They take offense, the anger escalates, and before you know it you've got a Road Rage incident.

In Scenario One, the fast mind intrudes into territory best left to our slow brain.


What if the conscious mind were in control? In Scenario Two, after your immediate reaction you take stock of the situation objectively ("spilled coffee, no damage to car, could have been worse"). You respond to the near miss with calm and equanimity. You might roll your eyes at the other driver's inattentive driving, but that's all. Your higher cognitive functions prevail, and you go about your daily business.


The cause of all this links back to which brain system rules the roost. Road Rage happens when a disruption leads to uncontrolled anger directed at another person, which then leads to more anger. Both parties may be primed to respond this way because of stress, fatigue, or simmering anger at another event in their lives unrelated to the incident on the road.

With this oversimplified example in mind, how do we become a Scenario Two person vs. a Scenario One person? How do we negotiate the conscious vs subconscious mind dynamic?

We learn to control our emotions, thereby putting the slow brain in charge. We become conscious of our thoughts. This is a great benefit of a meditation practice, in which we learn to calm the mind and learn to observe the random thoughts that race around in our heads. We develop equanimity, which is the ability to observe our feelings and emotions without reacting to them. We respond to threats and other disruptions in proportion to the actual danger.

Limiting beliefs vs our amazing brains!

Just as in our Road Rage example, the subconscious mind can exert influence where it is not needed. Limiting beliefs manifest as self-sabotage: "I'm not worthy", "I don't deserve to be happy / wealthy / loved", etc.

The good news is that the subconscious mind can be trained. Limiting beliefs can be overcome, their power reduced to background noise in our minds. That sets the stage for unleashing the subconscious mind's great superpower: connecting us to Infinite Source, Divine Energy, Universal Power as we create the great life we imagined for ourselves in moments of inspiration. The battle of conscious vs subconscious mind can be won.

In coaching, I work with my clients to chase down limiting beliefs relentlessly, and work hard to identify and help clear them. It takes time, and much conscious (slow brain!) effort. No wonder, since what we're doing is literally rewiring our brains so that old patterns lose power, and new ones are brought to the forefront.

With limiting beliefs in check, we then move on to creating the life for yourself that you envision in your quietest, happiest moments.

conscious vs subconscious mind

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