Do thought processes take place without conscious awareness
Does the brain process 95 percent of all information unconsciously?
As you read this article, your gaze wanders from left to right across the lines without your even realizing it. You only notice it when you pay attention to it. The same is true of physical sensations. You are probably sitting up straight. You will only feel the pressure of the chair surface when you draw your attention to it. These examples illustrate that much of the information available to the brain is unconscious. And that's a good thing: If all the impressions were constantly pouring down on us unfiltered, we would be hopelessly overwhelmed.
The receptor cells of our sensory organs continuously convert stimuli into nerve signals. On the one hand, we can absorb information from the environment in this way. We see, hear, feel, smell, taste, and we sense whether it is warm or cold, for example. On the other hand, the brain receives constant updates about the state of the body - for example with regard to balance, the position of the extremities, but also hunger or pain.
This article is included in Brain & Mind 2/2019
The media sometimes haunt impressive figures about how much of it our thinking organ actually withholds from us. Sometimes it should be 90 percent, sometimes 95, sometimes even 99.9 percent. However, in order to estimate quantitatively how much information remains unconscious or, on the contrary, is consciously processed, we would need a clear definition of "information". In addition to all the input from the environment and your own body that is available to the brain, it still has huge amounts of stored information. In addition to our knowledge of the world and memories of important events, different memory systems also store motor skills such as cycling and conditioned reactions that we have learned in the course of our lives.
Here it is completely unclear what constitutes information. Is the memory of an episode, such as your own driving test, a Information unit, or does this episode consist of many elements, for example the name of the inspector, the color of the car or individual intersections that you have traveled through? Even the fact that information in the brain is represented by neural activity doesn't get us any further here. Defining the firing of a single nerve cell as information is too far-reaching, because nerve cells also fire spontaneously without this directly serving to convey information. This leaves the question: What rate of neuronal activity in which neuron groups and with what frequency of activation does information represent?
Although an exact percentage cannot be calculated, one can confidently speak of the fact that a large part of the processed data remains closed to the consciousness. After all, our experience is limited to a given at any point in time. However, since our attention is constantly jumping back and forth between different things, it is difficult to grasp when something is consciously processed at all and when not. Accordingly, psychological research hardly deals with the question of how much there is unconsciously processed information. Instead, one examines whether and how unconscious and conscious information processing can be distinguished from one another.
In experiments on what is known as priming, participants are shown a visible target stimulus that is intended to provoke a certain reaction. Before that, however, you add another stimulus, the so-called prime, which has either the same or a different meaning than the target stimulus. However, the test person only gets to see this for a very short time, so that he is not consciously aware of it. Many such studies have shown that unconscious stimuli, just like conscious stimuli, trigger automatic reactions, influence decisions and influence cognitive control processes. However, they control our behavior less strongly and persistently than information that penetrates consciousness.
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