Is there any evidence for the subconscious?

This term, of course, turns up all the time in pop-psychology, often used as an axiom.

Does this term have a place in a scientific discussion? do professionals take it seriously?

My other question that struck me, that I’ve never really reflected on : what would it even mean; “the subconscious” (if we disregard the Freudian school of thought). More interested in how serious scholars look upon this term.

I have taken the concept for granted for so long…really interested in getting some insight in this ubiquitous term.

It depends on how you define subconscious but, yes, there is evidence for it. Dreams are good evidence of a subconscious on their own but some people can remember things in dreams from long ago that they wouldn’t be able to while awake. I once dreamed that I was a teenager again and I needed to call all of my friends. I pulled out a list and read off all the numbers no problem. I remembered enough of them that I jotted them down when I woke up and checked the ones that still had parents at that address. They were correct and I would not have had any hope of doing that on demand while awake. I am sure other people have had similar experiences.

There are also some tasks that can be mastered but supposedly can’t be taught in any objective way. Both sexes of baby chickens look almost identical but still need to be separated early in large chicken houses. One way to teach people how to do this is to just have them work with a person that can sex chickens and start picking on their own. They get feedback if they are right or wrong but not why because most people can’t articulate how they know. Over time, that person will also know how to sex chickens at a glance but also won’t be able to explain why. Soldiers have reported the same phenomena with separating enemy and friendly planes from far away. They are just specks that all look the same at first but some people can learn to differentiate them at a glance yet still can’t explain how.

Those are only two components of the subconscious that have good evidence. I am sure people can add more.

Here is an interesting article in Discover magazine about things the subconscious is involved in. It mentions some of the same things I did plus more:


In so far as we perceive our conscious self to be that which makes decisions, the issue may not be if the subconscious exists, but if much of what we think of as the work of our conscious selves actually is.

The another related issue in serious neurobiology research concerns how we divide our attention between tasks. Our brains are aware of much going on around us and processing it, in parallel, in the background, analyzing it for novelty or salience, but keeping it out of the central focus of attention which we are consciously aware of. We are in general not fully conscious of that processing unless it somehow triggers strongly enough the novelty or salience features to overcome the attention being paid to that which has the center ring of the moment. Some think of ADD as being a processing style that devotes more brain power to that parallel processing, which results in more shifts of center ring of attention, but also in more connections being made between different information streams that they are “subconsciously” always working on (which plays out as more creative thinking and better humor skills). The other end of the spectrum is the laser beam focus, more brain power on one subject at a time but less likely to notice the unexpected different fit. That latter style does serve one better in schol and many work settings. A digression I know.

This doesn’t correspond at all to reality.

This is a myth: Methods of chick sexing.
(Not as much fun as it sounds.)


I admit that cites that provide objective measures of creativity and humor are few (the terms are hard to even define), and in regards to ADD they are even more sparse. I mostly only have my 23 years of clinical experience talking to ADD kids and their families and watching them grow up to refer to. That is, admittedly, a “my post is my cite” defense. But sparse is not nonexistent.

For example:


About the role of parallel processing in humor. Some of the thoughts about parallel processing in ADD.

But yes my real world experience is what convinces me. In general the ADD kids have great senses of humor and are creative. I strongly believe that it is a processing difference and not necessarily a disability, although given the need to function in our modern world it can be. But again, a digression from the op. I apologize.

Who are the “professionals” and what is a “scientific discussion”? Am I right when I presume that you insinuate that every professional who has studied the matter is to be disregarded as unprofessional, since there really is no such thing?

As an example of historical significance: Carl Gustav Jung was a psychiatrist at Burghölzli mental institution and became famous in the psychiatric society at the time for his word association experiment. What he showed with this repeatable experiment was that there is an unconscious, that is, the conscious – the Ego – is not the master of one’s own psychology. The ego does not choose it’s own reactions on certain words.
What he would do was to read a list of a hundred words, to which the participant would say the first thing that came to his or her mind, and Jung took note of the participant’s reactions, and he found that certain words caused for instance hesitations, stuttering, phychical symptoms like blushing, perspirations, and so forth. He then read the same list once again and noted that those certain words once again caused these symptoms. The participant could not avoid them. For instance, a person who had a traumatic experience involving knife, blood and Vienna, could not choose not to show these symptoms when words associated with this experience were read to him or her. The psychological and physical reactions were involuntary, and they were of psychological origin. This was an example of evidence that there are what he called complexes, unconscious clusters of images, feelings, associations and so forth, that intervenes with the conscious mind. They are unconsciuos because we do not know about them and we do not rule them. The complexes pretty much rule us. We very much behave, and reacts, and feels, out of the motivation of our complexes rather than our concious will. One person do not mind if the boss says “That wasn’t a very good job”, the other person is devasted, because, for instance, the other person has a father complex which intervenes with his conscious mind. He know his reaction is irrational, but there it is; the involuntary blushing, the anxiety, the lot. This is of course, just a simplified example.
The point is that you can actually show that people are not masters of their own psychology. There is a conscious, parts of your psychology which you know and which you master. Right now, for instance, I’m conscious of what I’m doing and I decide every word I write and there are no emotions involved for instance. However, when my boss says: “Can’t you do anything right?” suddenly I react irrationally, I might not be able to speak at all, I blush, I’m enraged, and when I get home my wife says something and in the same instant I am not master of my own psychology and I say thing I never thought of saying and afterwards I might not even remember what I said; I am not conscious of what I am doing and if I watched a film of myself I might wonder who the hell is that; that is not “me”, because it is not my Ego conscious acting out but something else which is obviously part of my psychology. What is that? Moreover, that night I might have a dream about my father being dismissive in my childhood home. We must draw the conclusion that if this is not the conscious I, it must be my unconscios I; or, to talk with Jung (which I use as an example), a subconscious complex acting out.

But nobody can measure the length or the weight of the unconscious, and the next time a complex is triggered I might not have a dream about my father. So it is an unscientifical conclusion that my experience is a consequence of my unconscious. Nonetheless, there it is: My own psychology is intervening with my psychology, I am not to chose my own reactions, my own associations, my own dreams. We can only say that our own psychology is not in our own hands, it seems to be, at least at times, in some “other’s” hands. What is that “other” of ours?

But the study of the unconscious, which is a reality, everybody who has the slightest talent for introspection knows that, does however not lend itself easily to the rules of natural science. The word association experiment (with all its faults, Jung himself abandoned it later) is an example on how close we can get – interesting because of its historical importance (Freud became very interested in Jung’s studies because of it for instance, because he very much wanted his theories to fit in a scientific discourse) --, but it is not enough for “science”. We cannot repeat it, we do not know that the reason I dream about my dismissive father after my boss rejects my work because of a father complex, because the next time I have this experience I might not dream about my father, and we cannot see the complex. All we can do is note the symptoms. But this is the case also in physics. We are convinced that gravitation is a fact because of the symptoms, and we can work out a working hypothesis for why there is such a thing as gravitation, but we cannot see it. We cannot say: Here is your gravitation to see. And we cannot say: Here is your unconscious. We can only say: Everything points to the fact that there is an unconscious, and here’s our hypothesis on what it is and how it works, from what we gather from the overwhelming material we have from its symptoms. But no, there is no scientific proof that it exists because although we can measure its effects, we cannot measure it in itself. Therefore we can easily say: There is no unconscious, and you can never prove to me, “scientifically”, that there is. But, “yet it moves.”

I think the existence of PTSD answers the question all by itself.

If there’s no subconscious, what is it that repeatedly overwhelms sufferers out of nowhere, long after the incident/s that caused the trauma?

That wiki entry doesn’t contradict what I said at all. It says that chicken sexing can be done by any knowledgeable person but only after they are older and have developed secondary sex characteristics. Chicken sexing of very young chicks is predominately done by the Japanese method (Vent sexing) I described even in the U.S. today. It isn’t ESP because there is some set of physical cues the person figures out but they can’t articulate it the way you could teach other tasks. That is why it is commonly used as an example of subconscious information processing. Notice the wiki entry says that poultry farmers (who presumably know chickens well) just have to wait until the chicks are older if they don’t have a sexer taught through this method and passed on one person to another.

The wikipedia article section on vent sexing is confusing to say the least. At first it says males have a large bump, females a small one or no bump. Nothing inarticulable about that! Then it says, though, something seeming to contradict what was just said–that it’s a matter of discerning between fifteen different patters of—something it doesn’t specify.

A more convincing example might be something like showing people two shades of a color which they claim are indiscernible, but rewarding them for picking the lighter one, and seeing if they are right more often than chance. (And I’d bet this has been done, and I’d bet it worked.)

I’m also curious to know what the rationale for Ultrafilter’s fairly bold claim was.

And my link describes vent sexing.

Yes, you have to learn how to do it, but it is a myth that chick sexers do not consciously know, or are incapable of describing, how they make the differentiation, or that anything particularly subconscious is involved.

I am afraid I can no longer remember where to find a direct cite on this, but it was a myth I used to believe in myself (it was current amongst certain philosophers, particularly in Australia, I believe, which is probably where I picked it up from), and, many years ago, I once asked about it, looking for a cite, on a listserv group used by academic psychologists. (The listserv archives used to be online, but have long since disappeared.) My question sparked off an embarrassingly long thread of discussion (there once was a time when if you searched my name on AltaVista, you would mainly get returns about chicken sexing, because I was the thread starter so my name was on every post, even though I dropped out of the actual discussion quite early on). Anyway, although the thread soon strayed on to other topics, it was pretty quickly made clear that the factoid I was asking about, the one you are repeating, had long since been debunked. I was pointed to peer reviewed articles on the topic (which I looked at, although I have not kept the citations). Chicken sexers do know how they do what they do, and, with a bit of encouragement, they can describe how they do it to scientists.

More examples of “subconscious” used in modern neuroscience.

“We investigated the event-related responses following subthreshold and suprathreshold stimulation with facial and non-facial figures using magnetoencephalography (MEG) and EEG recordings to clarify the physiological nature of subconscious perception. … The subconscious recognition of face might be processed around the fusiform gyrus.”

“Oneof the most compelling challenges for modern neuroscience is the influence of awareness on behavior. We studied prefrontal correlates of conscious and subconscious motor adjustments to changing auditory rhythms using regional cerebral blood flow measurements. … while ventral prefrontal areas may be engaged in motor adaptations performed subconsciously, only fully conscious motor control which includes motor planning will involve dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.”

“Results are consistent with the assumption that subconscious threat detection can lead to misrepresentations of stimulus significance and that pathological anxiety is characterized by a hyperactive preattentive alarm system that is insufficiently controlled by higher cognitive processes.”

The modern neurobiological version of the subconscious is not Freud’s or Jung’s, but it is measurable and real. Falsifiable even.

Regarding chick sexing etc. - it all depends on what we call “subconscious”.

Our brains are wired to match patterns. Often we can’t articulate the specific sets of attributes and what their weights are that result in a particular response - it’s a “we know it when we see it”.

Consider also biofeedback as a practical application, and hence evidence of, the subconscious.

(For more on this, just Google biofeedback for about 8,300,000 more hits on the subject.)

And then there is blindsight.

The good old Freudian Slip is indicative!

One day, many years ago, my boss said, “I’ve got a new task for you. You’re going to hate me for this.”

I said, without thinking, “I already…” Turned bright red. Stumbled on, “…Have a lot to do this afternoon, but I’ll fit it in.” Shambled out of the office in total humiliation.

My unconscious tried to speak the truth!

I’d call that “intuition”.

Which, of course, is the observable avatar of subconscious processes.

Perhaps, but this is not true of chick sexing. See my post #13. Chick sexers can articulate it.