Look up from the screen right now and scan the room around you, directing your gaze at one object, then another, then another.

As you focus on each object, imagine what that object would feel like on your tongue if you licked it.*

My guess is that you have a very, very good idea how your tongue would react to each object.

So your tongue knows a lot that you didn’t realize it knew.

And do you remember learning to speak your native language, or learning to walk? If you recall learning to ride a bicycle, do you remember precisely what it was that you learned that enabled you to keep the bike from falling over?

I don’t!

Unless you have a photographic memory or are one of those extremely rare individuals with total recall of every moment of their lives, the answer to each of those questions was almost certainly “no.”

It turns out that an enormous amount of what you know was learned while you weren’t aware that you were learning it. The same is true of perception. You see, hear, smell, and feel lots of things that don’t consciously register in the moment, but you often retain this information in your unconscious.

Click on this link to experience a dynamic, animating example of unconscious perception.

And here’s a static example of unconscious processing.

Below are four images, each with multiple rubber ducks in them. Examine each photo carefully, counting the number of ducklings, keeping track of the total number of ducks (green and yellow count equally), so that when you have finished, you remember the total number of ducks from all four photos taken together.

The correct number of ducks, along with a hint of what other unconscious knowledge you may have gained while performing the task, are shown at the bottom of this page, upside down.

Please check out the bottom of the page before continuing.

Even if you didn’t register exactly what was going on in the photos, you may have had a vague sense, a little twinge somewhere in your body, that something unusual was going on in the sky, even if you weren’t sure what it was.

Apart from an amusing party trick or something to talk about at coffee breaks, why should you care about what goes into your unconscious or how it gets there?

Here’s why you should care.

  • Racism, sexism and just about every other “ism” you can think of gets a strong boost from implicit learning. For instance, when children see movies and TV shows of males in charge at work, males making breakthrough scientific discoveries, males as action heroes and so forth, research shows that both sexes form “implicit” biases that they are unaware of. In each movie or TV show, there is no explicit message that males are superior, but the implicit message sinks in, forming implicit memories. These memories and attitudes are incredibly difficult to change because the people who hold these attitudes don’t know that they hold them!

My clinical supervisor when I was an intern observed “Eric, you can’t let go of                something you don’t know that you have”

  • Learned helplessness. Lao Tzu said “He [I’m adding…or she] who conquers others is strong, he [..or she] who conquers himself [herself] is mighty.” One of the most problematic things that we all learn, when we fail early in life, is what we cannot do, even when it’s entirely possible that we can do it.  My biggest challenge as a therapist treating women whose partners beat them was to get them to “unlearn” the implicit knowledge they had gained that they couldn’t make it on their own, that they were weak, that they were unable to get control of their lives.
  • Intuition is largely (if not entirely) comprised of implicit learning, cognition and perception. Although implicit memories or attitudes may not rise to full consciousness, you nonetheless are able to feel them in your body (usually the gut) signaling you, for example, to avoid or approach someone you don’t know at a cocktail party based on subtle clues from that person’s posture, facial expressions, gestures, clothing and hairstyle. You may have unconsciously learned, from many encounters with people, that those who are unusually still are good listeners (or vice versa), or that people who wear clashing colors are interesting.

The most important takeaway from these examples is that while unconscious information, by definition, does not makes its way into our thoughts, it very often does make itself known through physical sensations in our bodies.

Language and idiom have been aware that unconscious knowledge emerges in our bodies, not our minds, long before the advent of neuroscience and experimental psychology.

  • My gut feeling is….
  • My heart raced when…
  • He gives me a headache
  • It took my breath away
  • Oh, my aching back
  • He’s a pain the neck
  • My chest tightened when..
  • I broke into a cold sweat
  • The hair on my neck stood up
  • I felt suddenly cold
  • I got hot under the collar
  • I felt an electric shock

Bottom line: the more you tune into such physical sensations, the more access you’ll have to that enormous treasure trove of information stashed away in the dark recesses of your brain.

My clinical supervisor was more right than he knew. You can’t let go of things you don’t know that you have, and you can’t fully grab onto them either!

There are a total of 19 rubber ducklings in the four photos

*Thanks to my sister Sue Haseltine for coming up with the observation about the feel of things on the tongue. She’s always had better taste than I have!


**This article was originally published on Dr. Eric Haseltine’s Psychology Today Column**

© Dr. Eric Haseltine

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