By Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E.
This article explores the idea that professionals will be even more innovative if they proactively use their complementary conscious and subconscious minds. It begins by describing these two minds, with emphasis on how they work. The article introduces the double-diamond process as a way of thoroughly defining and then solving a problem. It discusses tools available for taking a whole-brain approach -- left and right hemisphere and conscious and subconscious mind -- to innovative problem solving. The article concludes by offering ideas on why some tools work well, especially in more fully engaging our complementary conscious and subconscious minds.
Understanding our brain’s conscious and subconscious thinking processes enables us to be even more innovative. We often hear about our brain’s very different left and right halves or hemispheres and benefit from that information. In contrast, we seem to be less conscious of our conscious and subconscious thinking. Let’s rectify that imbalance so that we are prepared to engage in what I call whole-brain thinking (Walesh 2017) -- intentional and effective use of our left and right hemispheres and conscious and subconscious minds.
I use the word subconscious to refer to brain processes that lie below what professor Rollo May (1976) calls our “level of awareness.” Other terms for the subconscious are unconscious and preconscious.
We are very aware of the capabilities of our conscious mind. It explicitly drives our work and other lives. My hope is that you will, because of reading this article about conscious and subconscious thinking, more proactively engage your subconscious mind.
Location of Our Conscious and Subconscious Minds
As explained by neuropsychologist Paul D. Nussbaum (2010), we can think of the brain as partitioned into a top-down orientation, with the cortex at the top and the subcortex at the bottom, as suggested here:
Nussbaum says that the cortex “is a convoluted mass of cells, with folds and flaps that sits snug within your skull.” He explains that “the cortex is primarily responsible for the most complex thinking abilities, including memory, language, planning, concept formation, problem solving, spatial representation, auditory and visual processing, mood, and personality.” Cortex processing is conscious; it is intentional.
Positioned beneath the cortex, the more primitive subcortex “primarily processes rote skills and procedures” with most of the processing being subconscious (Nussbaum 2010). Examples of subconscious activities are word processing, tying your shoes, and driving -- things we do habitually. The cortex and subcortex connect in many ways and work very effectively together.
Scientists share widespread agreement about the existence of conscious and subconscious cognitive processes but the precise location of the processes is somewhat uncertain. For example, while Clayman (1991) and Mlodinow (2013) generally support Nussbaum’s cortex - subcortex model, biologist and researcher John Medina (2008) says, “We don’t know the neural location of consciousness, loosely defined as that part of the mind where awareness resides.” In response, Nussbaum (2014) says there is “no real conflict” because “the brain does work in harmony, yet it can also maintain regional specialization.”
How Our Conscious and Subconscious Minds Work
Psychiatrist Scott Peck (1997) says, “The conscious mind [drawing on information from our senses and memory] makes decisions and translates them into actions.” As an example of using your conscious mind, you define a problem, develop alternative solutions, compare them, select one, and recommend it. You are aware of the cognitive processing required for that process. With our conscious mind, we are thinking and we know it.
In contrast, the cognitive processing in the subconscious mind occurs without our being aware of it. “The [subconscious] mind resides below the surface;” according to Peck, “it is the possessor of extraordinary knowledge that we aren’t naturally aware of.” In the case of our subconscious mind, we are thinking and we don’t know it. During that conscious problem-solving process described in the previous paragraph, we can be certain that the subconscious mind is influencing, unbeknownst to us, the process.
One indication of the functioning of your subconscious mind: That great idea that “pops into your head” or “comes out of the blue.” The subconscious mind, if we can more effectively use it, has great potential as suggested by writer and anthropologist Martha Lagace (2012) who said “Our conscious mind is pretty good at following rules, but our unconscious mind -- our ability to think without attention -- can handle a larger amount of information. Studying the unconscious mind offers exciting new avenues for research, including creativity, decision making, and sleep.”
Considering further the relative impact on us of our conscious and subconscious minds, neuroscientist David Eagleman (2012) writes “consciousness is the smallest player in the operations of our brain. Our brains run mostly on autopilot.” The biggest player is our subconscious mind, which, as stated by Peck (1997), “resides below the surface.” As illustrated metaphorically in the following figure, conscious cognitive processing is the tip of the iceberg; subconscious cognitive processing is much larger and invisible.
Consider some more metaphors to help understand our conscious and subconscious minds and how they work together in a complementary manner. They also suggest how you can cause them to work even better together (all from scientist and theologian Murphy (2000), except as noted):
- The conscious mind is the camera and the subconscious mind is the image you want to capture, so point your “camera” at the things you want to capture.
- The conscious mind sees reality while the subconscious mind cannot tell the difference between reality seen by the conscious mind and that imagined by the conscious mind (Tice 2002). Therefore, consciously imagine and visualize those good things you desire and your subconscious mind will accept and work on them as though they were an evolving reality.
- The conscious mind selects and plants seeds and the subconscious mind germinates and grows them. Select seeds for the crop you want to harvest.
- Your conscious mind is the cause; your subconscious mind, the effect. Choose your causes carefully.
- “You can give problem-solving and idea-getting tasks to your [subconscious] mind, send it off on a search while you do other things, even while you sleep, and have it return with useful material you didn’t know you knew and might never have obtained through conscious thought or worry” (Maltz and Kennedy 2001).
- The conscious mind is a part-time worker while the subconscious mind works full-time; it never sleeps (Gibb 2012). Use the limited time available with your conscious mind to direct and fully utilize the 24/7 efforts of your subconscious mind.
- The conscious mind is the ship’s captain and the subconscious mind a fast ship with a resourceful crew.
- According to author Richard Carlson (1997), the subconscious mind is the back burner of your mind that “mixes, blends, and simmers ingredients into a tasty meal.” He advises us to feed our always-available back burner with a “list of problems, facts, and variables, and possible solutions,” let them simmer, and expect a pleasing result.
The following table further explains major differences between our conscious and subconscious cognitive processing. By leveraging those great differences, that is, by being aware of and linking them, we can enhance, individually and collectively, our innovation.
When thinking, we know it
When thinking, we don’t know it
Prefers complete information in order to decide/do
Can work with pieces
Sees, or thinks it sees, what can be accomplished
Believes that what is imagined by the conscious mind can be achieved and goes to work on it
Does not control dreams
Can change habits
Source of habits
The great Russian innovator Genrich Altshuller recognized the existence and complementary roles of our conscious and subconscious minds. He noticed that “many inventions were made in three steps. First, an inventor intensely and unsuccessfully searches for a solution. Then, having not solved the problem, he stops thinking about it. Some time passes, and suddenly, as if a delayed action mechanism goes off -- ‘as by itself” -- the required solution appears” (Altshuller 1999).
How Do We Know How Our Subconscious Minds Work?
On learning about our powerful subconscious mind, we might ask how scientists know it exists if we are not aware of its mental activity. Cognitive scientist Benjamin Libet first answered this question in the 1980s by monitoring the electrical activity of research subjects. He asked them, whenever they felt like it, to press a button. “He could see that movement-controlling brain regions became active about a quarter of a second before subjects said they’d consciously decided to push the button. Some subconscious part of the brain decided well before the conscious mind did” (McGowan 2014). The subconscious acts before the conscious, as also explained by Kean (2014), Koch (2012), and Rock (2009).
Another argument for the existence of the subconscious mind is research, which indicates that we often follow, without conscious thought, preset behavioral scripts (Mlodinow 2013) such as habits. And, finally, we experience those great ideas that “pop into your head” or “come out of the blue.” However, they don’t, as explained by Professor William B. Irvine (2015), because they “come to us from the apparent blackness of our [subconscious] mind.”
Making Effective Use of Our Conscious and Subconscious Minds
The Double Diamond
As a means of giving structure to this part of the article, let’s use the double-diamond model for solving a problem -- a technical or non-technical challenge (Hurson 2018, Norman 2013, Walesh 2018). As illustrated here, we first use serial divergent and convergent thinking to define thoroughly the problem and, when reasonably satisfied, we apply divergent and convergent thinking to solve the problem.
I am stressing thoroughness, first in defining the problem and then in finding a solution. In consulting, some of us follow this advice: Don’t solve the problem the client asks you to solve. We don’t say this to disparage a client but rather to encourage both client and consultant to define thoroughly the problem before attempting to solve it. If we rush either diamond, we risk solving the wrong problem, missing benefits that could arise from a solution, failing to serve some stakeholders, spending more than necessary, and harming the environment.
Altshuller (1999) said “…never accept a problem statement fabricated by others.” He went on to say that a well-defined problem has a goal – “what must be achieved” – and what must be changed or improved to accomplish that goal.
Fortunately, we have many idea-generating tools. The commonality among them is being able to stimulate individuals and, more powerfully, groups to think much deeper and wider -- to generate more ideas while working through the two diamonds.
Rather than relying only on, what author Gerard Nierenberg(1982) calls, “accidental creativity.” These tools facilitate intentional creativity by engaging both cranial hemispheres and the conscious and subconscious minds. My book (Walesh 2017) provides a “box” of twenty tools, a sampling of which includes Ask-Ask-Ask, Biomimicry, Borrowing Brilliance, Fishbone Diagramming, Freehand Drawing, Mini-Medici Effect, Mind Mapping, Ohno Circle,Six Thinking Caps, TRIZ, and What If.
These tools recognize that while creative/innovative ideas lie within most of us, we need mechanisms to release them. “We know where most of the creativity, the innovation, the stuff that drives productivity lies,” according to former GE Chairman Jack Welch, “in the minds of those closest to the work.” We need methods to engage those minds and release that creativity. Your organizations are loaded with innovative ideas -- your personnel are a gold mine of innovation. To paraphrase Altshuller (1999), many of us are surrounded by problems that scream for attention, but we often don’t hear them.
Why the Tools Work
This is the most challenging part of this article because my faith in known innovation tools is empirical, that is, based on personal experience, observation, and study -- not rigorously tested scientific principles. Nevertheless, in the spirit of encouraging more innovation, I am compelled to share my views. Tools like those mentioned above, and others, work for these reasons:
1) They enhance interaction of participants. An individual or group agrees, at least tentatively, to use a tool, which may be new. Now participants are all going in the same direction and playing off each other. For example, if an ad hoc team agrees to use Fishbone Mapping as a means to define the attributes of a problem, almost every team member will strive to introduce a new “bone” to the diagram. Right and left hemispheres will engage and produce fruitful results, especially if the team is diverse. Subconscious minds will make surprising and major contributions if the team takes breaks, especially overnight or over a few days.
Contrast the preceding with the team leader passively saying, “so what do you think is the cause of this problem?”
2) They leverage the dominance of vision. The tools tend to be visional. Vision dominates our other senses -- hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, and balance. Biologist John Medina (2008) says “vision trumps all other senses” and states that vision is the most dominant of the six senses because it takes up half of our brain’s resources. Whether working individually or in a group, more fully engaging the most productive sense is most likely to yield the most productive results.
Consider, as an example, the city of Evansville, IN, which was facing a major challenge in early 2017 (Walesh 2018). They were under state and federal orders to construct a large, 68 million gallons per day, treated sewage pumping station in the middle of the City’s favorite park in an attractive setting along the Ohio River. With the problem defined -- the first diamond completed
-- they needed to generate ideas to meet the challenge of enabling a pumping station to function and be aesthetically compatible with active recreation, STEAM education activities, and major social/community events.
They elected to use Mind Mapping with the participants consisting of about thirty highly varied individuals, half from the city and half from the consulting team. I facilitated a visual and interactive two-hour session that generated mind maps, as shown in the following figure, containing 110 diverse ideas.
After a one-month break for the entire group, during which subconscious minds were at work and various small-group discussions occurred, the entire group reconvened. Because of the break, and conscious and subconscious thinking and conversations it had already stimulated, the reconvened group mixed and matched, added to, and deleted the original 110 ideas. The result: a large multipurpose community building, as shown in the following rendering.
The pumping station will occupy the basement and most of the above ground two stories will provide class and meeting rooms, a large space for receptions and special events, and rest rooms.
I have facilitated many Mind Mapping sessions with varied groups and topics. It always engages essentially all participants and generates many diverse ideas, partly because of its visual feature.
3) They enable using the conscious mind to engage the subconscious mind. As noted early in this article, our subconscious mind conducts almost all of our cognitive processing without our knowledge -- we are not aware of almost all of our thinking. While that may be unsettling, think of the good news about how we can think. Let’s use our “miniscule” conscious mind to delegate thinking work to our “massive” subconscious mind and, metaphorically, sit back and wait for the results.
Here are some delegation ideas:
- You just received a new assignment, as in complete this task by this date. As soon as possible, invest say a half hour in thinking and writing (just words) or imaging (schematics) about the assignment -- a mind map is a great tool to combine both. Set your initial thoughts aside and pick them up in a day or a week. Be pleasantly surprised to discover what your subconscious mind did in your “absence.”
- You are leading a team charged with solving a problem. Meet, face-to-face or virtually, as soon as practical and apply the preceding idea, except now as a group effort.
- Any time you lead a group that meets, expect results during meetings. However, take breaks, whether ten minutes or two days. Avoid the temptation of having to decide everything now or quickly because doing so will deny you, your group, and those you serve your collective best thinking. More specifically, you will miss the fruits of your collective subconscious thinking.
- For several days, off and on, you have tried, unsuccessfully, to solve a complex challenge. Try this tonight before calling it a day. Summarize, in writing, the problem and some of the solutions you have considered. Then, metaphorically and literally, sleep on it while your subconscious mind works. Revisit your notes in the morning and expect new insight.
In the interest of illustrating the benefit of taking a break, after a serious effort, to engage our subconscious minds, consider an innovation story (Adams 2014, Boehler 2012, Fox 2012). In 1948, Bernard Silver, while an engineering graduate student at Drexel Institute of Technology, learned that a food store chain wanted to speed up the checkout process at their stores. He partnered with Norman Woodland, a friend and fellow engineering graduate student, and they started to work on a system. Their first working model used fluorescent ink, but it faded and was expensive. They persisted for many months without success.
Woodland took a break, went temporarily to Florida, stayed near the beach, and continued to work on the project, now inspired by Morse code, which he had learned as a Boy Scout. He began to think about dots and dashes. One day, during the winter of 1948-49, he took a break and was at the beach lying back in a beach chair. He stretched out a hand, put it in the sand, and pulled it back. He looked at his finger marks in the sand, saw parallel lines of varying width, and this led to the bar code concept.
Woodland and Silver pursued the now promising bar code concept. On June 26, 1974, a 10-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum was scanned with a device made by the National Cash Register Company (now NCR) at Marsh’s Supermarket in Troy, OH. That package of gum is on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. This first use of the bar code occurred about 25 years after the day when Bernard Silver learned about the need and Woodland took a break at the beach, which reminds us that original ideas are one thing, implementing them is another.
We often hear about our brain’s very different left and right halves or hemispheres and benefit from that information. In contrast, we seem to be less conscious of our more mysterious conscious and subconscious minds.
This article rectifies that omission by suggesting that we can use knowledge of our conscious and subconscious cognitive processes to be more innovative. That conclusion is supported by a discussion of how collaboration tools can help to engage both of our minds, with emphasis on the subconscious mind, and lead to innovative results.
About the Author
Stuart G. Walesh, Ph.D., P.E., Dist.M.ASCE, and F.NSPE is an independent consultant-teacher- author providing engineering, leadership, management, and education/training services. Prior to his consultancy, he worked in the academic, government, and business sectors serving as a professor, dean, project engineer and manager, department head, discipline manager, marketer, and litigation consultant. Walesh participated in or managed many projects in his technical specialty, water resources engineering. He authored seven books and many engineering publications and presentations. His most recent books are Introduction to Creativity and Innovation for Engineers (Pearson 2017) and Engineering Your Future: The Professional Practice of Engineering -- North American and Global Editions (Wiley 2012). Walesh facilitated and/or made presentations at hundreds of workshops, seminars, classes, webinars, and meetings throughout the U.S. and internationally. Contact him at email@example.com or visit www.HelpingYouEngineerYourFuture.com
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Walesh, S. G. 2017. Introduction to Creativity and Engineering for Engineers. New York: Pearson. (Published in North American and Global editions and introduced, with reviews, here: http://www.helpingyouengineeryourfuture.com/managing-leading-books.htm )
Walesh, S. G. 2018. “Avoid Being Stung by Einstellung: Then Innovate.” Presented at the 2018 Professional Engineers Conference, National Society of Professional Engineers, Las Vegas, July 20.
Image sources: Pixabay provided the brain, iceberg, toolbox, and barcode images. Donohue & Associates provided the pumping station rendering. All others by the author.
- I welcome opportunities to speak, teach, conduct workshops, and collaborate about any aspect of helping engineers become even better creators-innovators. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 219-242-1704.
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