In a previous post mind was considered “that part of a person that allows a unified conscious awareness of the world, our bodies, and experiences, including thinking and feeling.” The major legacy of the Freudian era of psychoanalysis is the observation that much of what we consider “mind” is unconscious. However, whether unconscious thoughts can be made conscious by therapeutic techniques is not at all clear. Modern studies have revealed a complex interaction between cognitive processes, both conscious and unconscious, and the physiological functions of the body. In fact, physiological responses tied to our emotions often guide our seemingly rational decisions.
A previous post on attention discussed two major types of decision-making processes: the automatic, rapid, and intuitive decision-making process and the slow, thoughtful, and evaluative process.
Suggestion from many sources is a major way that we are influenced in the rapid automatic decision-making process. Conversely, much of our response to the influences in the environment is unconscious.
Neuroscience research has found that first impressions have a disproportionately large impact on our emotional, unconscious, decision-making mechanism. As an example, smells from early in life, like those of our first kiss or our families’ special foods, have far more emotional impact than smells we encounter later. Associations to these first impressions can easily mislead. The tendency for the impact of seemingly small aspects of an event to have a major effect on a decision can be seen in many human encounters including job interviews. Most leading brands in a market lead only because they were the first in the consumer’s mind. It is extremely difficult to overcome this first impression.
Many people blindly accept negative statements they hear about others. Gossip about a person can have a dramatic effect on our opinion of them. In politics, spreading lies about an opponent can, unfortunately dramatically affect the opponent’s public opinion, either by creating a first impression, or giving data that is hard to corroborate.
Advertising affects all of us, and particularly children. It is difficult to make a rational choice when bombarded by constant suggestions from advertisers. The song we don’t like, that we hear over and over, eventually plays in our mind. The reaction to the command, “Do not think of a white polar bear,” demonstrates the minds weakness for suggestion since it is impossible not to visualize the polar bear.
Constant Environmental Suggestions
Recently, marketers have used neuroscience research to make food and other products more appealing in stores. They coordinate placement, signs, and music so that we’ll buy their product. Marketers’ emotional appeals and logical appeals each stimulate different brain activity but can also work together to increase influence. After a logical appeal, the brain has more activity in both logical and emotional decision making centers. When primitive emotional ads are used there is less inhibition to buying.
In experiments of social media people oppose a view expressed by few. They are less likely to oppose that view when a large number of people espouse it. Also, people are more likely to change their opinions after considering them longer. Finally, the more time a person takes in an initial choice, the more easily others can change that person’s mind.
Other facts are known about suggestion. When we have heard something before, we rate it as true more often. The is called the “illusion of truth effect.” If groups are asked to solve a problem, the group decision is more correct than the best individual. But, if the individuals are told the previous responses then they follow others and the sum is not better. Suggestion usually wins.
Brain research shows that adults who had the willpower to resist temptation of eating sweets offered to them as one choice in an experiment at age 4 were able to focus and achieve more 40 years later. Whether this willpower was trained or innate, the frontal lobe was most active. This is a part of the brain noted for control of impulses. Those with little resistance to temptation had an increase in the brain regions associated with impulsiveness.
Experience Wiring Brains and Self Directed Re-wiring
As has been discussed in a previous post attention, and repeated use, create neuronal connections, with more dendrites, axons and synapses. If utilized these circuits become stronger. The neural connections become weaker if unused. New learning causes new neurons to become integrated into the brain. Those utilized by experience develop stronger connections between brain regions as well as new cells.
In the fetus and infant a huge overgrowth of neurons and connections are pruned by this same principle. The infant’s experience, including sensing and reacting, stimulates connections between sensory and motor regions, and those cells that do not participate in this process are then pruned through an orderly process of dismantling the unused neurons.
Suggestion in our environment and the unconscious reactions to these suggestions also creates neuronal networks through the same neuroplasticity process. Learning, through unconscious processes or conscious processes including suggestion, create new circuits and incorporate new neurons. As we have seen conscious and unconscious activities use different brain networks which also can overlap. As described in the example of driving a car, consciously learned behavior can eventually become auto piloted unconscious behavior with different brain regions being emphasized.
Suggestion from the environment provides an unconsciously directed motor of brain development similar to what occurs in the fetus and infant responding to the environment. As well as the ubiquitous influence of environment suggestion, much of which is random, self suggestion can also be a potent force influencing the brain.
The Neuroplasticity of Self –Suggestion, Attention, and Concentration
In self-suggestion we can think of a negative mantra of failure, or a positive mantra of success. Cognitive therapy studies show that negative self-suggestions are often self-fulfilling. However, positive self-suggestion therapies can easily become unrealistic.
The post on meditation showed that through the self suggestions of conscious mental exercises a new default brain network of increased focus and concentration can be established with new neurons, and strengthened axons, dendrites, and synapses. The many studies showing enlarged brain regions from meditation practice demonstrate that this is one very important form of self-suggestion that can over time strengthen the ability to create useful brain connections.
Another essential form of self-suggestion, critical for everyday life, is resisting the constant unconscious influences in the media.
The only way to prevent the random influence of environmental suggestion is through attention, concentration, and introspection. While difficult, it is essential so there is a chance to evaluate the information and opinions we receive. It is possible that in a simpler era of the human existence when most of the random influence was coming from the world of plants, animals and weather this faculty was not so critical. When the primary human experience was being in nature away from constant human influence the neuroplastic effects of environment on brain circuits were different. Today the major random suggestions come from ubiquitous media and if unchecked will stimulate its own neuronal circuits in the receiving brain.
The faculty of self-suggestion to counter random influences is another example of mental free will. While it is impossible not to think negatively at times, “hear no evil” may be a very important lesson taken from neuroscience to counteract random environmental suggestion. This technique could help stimulate conscious attention to incoming suggestions and appropriate, nuanced evaluation of this material. Certainly this ability to neutrally evaluate experience is not easily found in the modern media culture.