Key idea #2

Almost all of our brain processes are carried out with no conscious awareness what so ever.

Conscious and unconscious processing

Our brains are constantly processing the millions of bits per second of incoming sensory data.

Generally, for interoception and proprioception we are not aware of the myriad processes keeping us in homeostasis – temperature regulation, hormone balance, muscle adjustments, endocrine function, etc. We are usually unaware of parts of our bodies unless we focus on them and even then, for some parts, we have no access unless they cause pain. How is your gall bladder doing right now?

For exteroception, we think we see and hear all that is occurring in our surroundings but it turns out this is an illusion. We are aware of only a tiny fraction. (Perception of reality link here) During the workshop you will have experienced examples of this.

In the context of personal / professional development it is important to understand a couple of key points of relevance:

  1. The content of our awareness is constructed as discussed here.
  2. That constructed awareness is a tiny proportion of what could be constructed from our sensory input at any given moment. See the links below for more about that.
  3. What does make it to awareness is determined by a number of factors. Some, but not all, are under our “control”.

What determines the content of our awareness?

When our brain detects immediate physical danger we go into auto-pilot and react accordingly. We have almost no conscious control over our reactions in that instant. Enough said about that.

In contexts where immediate danger is not present our behaviour can be thought of as being on a continuum from reaction to response.


At the reaction end of the spectrum we are in “auto-pilot”. The behaviour we move into has no conscious awareness – no consideration, no evaluation nor any planning. Defensive reactions are usually in this category. Other examples include the expression of our “hidden assumptions” about the world, ourselves or other people.


At this end of the spectrum there is some “thinking” awareness. We might be aware of some “self-talk”, paying attention to our “gut” feeling, having awareness of our emotional state, perhaps thinking about what that means for us, or some other internal process we are aware of in whatever way that manifests for us.

The important point is: the research and evidence show that human beings are never completely at the response end of the spectrum no matter what we might believe about ourselves. As the links below demonstrate, even the most banal “choices” we make are coloured by internal processes of which we are completely unaware. Furthermore, those internal processes are in a state of constant change. That is good news because it means we can take action to shape them over time. Growing from infants to adults is but one example where our internal “automatic” processes are adapted over time. This is simply part of being human.

The capacity to shape these internal processes is generally called “development” and engaging that process with intent is the key element of personal or leadership development.

I discuss this in detail here.

For now, please enjoy these excursions into our hidden world.


Change your mindset, change the game | Dr. Alia Crum | TEDxTraverseCity


Understanding unconscious bias | The Royal Society


Are you biased? I am | Kristen Pressner | TEDxBasel


What does my headscarf mean to you? | Yassmin Abdel-Magied


David Eagleman: Brain over mind?


Dan Ariely: Are we in control of our own decisions?