5 Steps to Harness the Raw Power of Your Unconscious Mind
I received a failing grade on my first exam at engineering graduate school. I was in the bottom 10th percentile of all the students in the class. It was a huge wake-up call. I had invested a lot of time and money by deciding to go to graduate school (including passing up a full-time job at a top automotive manufacturer), and now I was going to get kicked out if I didn’t shape up quickly.
When I got home from class I reflected on what went wrong. I quickly realized the method I had used to study in undergrad was not going to cut it at this level. During my undergrad, I would start studying as late as possible and cram all the information into my head before exam time. I would rely on the short amount of time between cramming and the exam to spill out as much of that information as possible, but I would lose all I had learned when the exam was done.
While effective for short term retention, you never truly tap into the raw processing power of your brain. There is a lot of real estate left on the table.
During my time at graduate school, I learned to tap into the true power of my mind for learning, problem-solving, and being creative. Although I am no longer at school, I use it all the time at work and also for my personal projects. And the best part of all is that it happens automatically, as long as you follow a few simple key steps.
The 2 Systems of Your Mind
In their book, Thinking Fast and Slow, renowned psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman posit there are 2 independent systems in your brain aptly named System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is your unconscious mind. It is automatic, intuitive and requires little energy or attention. It functions on autopilot in the background constantly. You use this system when you drive to work every day, seemingly on auto-pilot. You also use this system to automatically complete the phrase “salt and…”
System 2 is your conscious mind. It is slow, deliberate, and analytic. It requires energy and attention from you to operate. You use this system when you count change to ensure you received the right amount. You also use this system when you carefully pull into a tight parking space to avoid hitting the other cars.
Your unconscious mind is like a rocket engine. Raw, powerful, but unpredictable at times. In comparison, your conscious mind is more like a car engine. Controlled and reliable.
Consider that your conscious mind can only retain between 5–9 objects (numbers, names, letters, etc) before that space becomes crowded and the information becomes lost. Your unconscious mind will (seemingly out of nowhere) provide you with a very specific memory from 20 years ago when you and your middle school friend shared a grilled cheese after swimming in a pool. It also holds every other memory you have ever created.
The Search for Twin Primes
Prime numbers are numbers that are divisible by themselves and 1 only. They have fascinated scientists and mathematicians for years. A curiosity about prime numbers is how you can often produce another prime number by simply adding 2 to an existing one. For example:
- 3 and 5
- 41 and 43
- 137 and 139
Mathematicians call these pairs of prime numbers “twin primes” and while there is a lot of evidence that they continue infinitely (i.e there is no largest twin prime set) there is no theorem or definite proof upholding this, although many have tried.
Yitang Zhang is such an individual. Zhang worked on his proof of infinitely many twin primes for 3 years. He would rack his conscious mind by expending effort and thinking critically about the problem at hand. His conscious mind would write line after line of proofs, making sure each line followed logically after the other. Once his conscious mind ran out of steam, he would stop and attend to other things in his life like his job or family.
What Zhang did each time he paused his twin prime theorem work was offload the new information he had just accumulated into his unconscious mind. We know this because an abstract form of the solution came to him one day while sitting in a friend’s backyard in Colorado waiting to go to a music concert.
Zhang knew immediately this was a huge step in the right direction, and by switching back to his conscious mind he was able to carefully forge a theorem inferring the existence of infinitely many twin primes.
This phenomenon of people having their greatest “aha” moments when their minds are farthest away from the problem at hand is not uncommon. Beethoven is said to have received inspiration for compositions while half asleep on carriage rides to Vienna. Chemist August Kekule (a key founder of modern chemical structure) is said to have discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after having a mid-afternoon nap.
While it takes effort and concentration to access your logical conscious mind, your abstract and seemingly boundless unconscious mind runs on autopilot constantly.
The secret to harnessing the true potential of your mind is accessing the free labor of your raw and powerful unconscious mind.
5 Steps to Harness the Raw Power of Your Unconscious Mind
Without further delay, let’s find out how to do exactly that:
- Use your conscious mind to identify the general structure and elements of a problem.
- Some effort and attention must be given to finding a solution (in my personal experience the amount of effort seems to correspond to the effectiveness of your unconscious mind producing a solution).
- Leave the problem alone. Even though you may have spent only 2–3 hours working on a problem, your unconscious mind will work on it 24 hours a day, even when you sleep.
- Begin working on the problem again sometime later using your conscious mind. You’ll find your unconscious mind made connections between elements of your problem or project that your conscious mind failed to do initially.
- Repeat as many times as necessary until you have a suitable outcome.
In graduate school these 5 steps looked like this:
- I would read through the textbook, and review my notes from the class. I may even have done some additional research online to gain a new perspective.
- I would begin working through some of the problems inevitably running into difficulties along the way
- I would put down my pen and head to the gym, play video games or go to bed for the night
- I would pick up my books first thing in the morning and start with the problem that had stumped me the day before. I’d often find a new way of looking at it, or at the very least a new place to start looking.
- I’d repeat as many times as necessary, alternating between my conscious and unconscious minds performing work
How I Use It Daily
This 5 step process can be used outside of school too. Here’s how I use it at work and life every day:
- I make my to-do list the evening before so my unconscious mind can begin to process the most effective way to perform each task and possibly unravel some difficulties I may face the next day
- When I’ve scheduled a meeting to troubleshoot a particularly difficult problem I will call key participants ahead of time and explain the problem to them so they have time to unconsciously think about it
- If my partner and I can’t agree on something (like what kind of house we’ll purchase in the upcoming year), I’ll kiss her sweetly and suggest we talk about it after a meal or the following day to let our unconscious minds do some of the heavy lifting.
Never fail to take advantage of the free labor of your unconscious mind. While everyone’s unconscious minds are always working in the background too, you now know how to point it in the right direction so it can start doing work for you.
- There are 2 systems in your mind: System 1 (the unconscious) and System 2 (the conscious)
- Your unconscious mind is powerful, abstract, and untethered. It functions on autopilot in the background constantly but is difficult to control.
- Your conscious mind is controlled, deliberate and critical. It takes energy and attention to utilize it.
- By using the 5 step method described above, you can tap into your boundless unconscious mind and offload whatever problem or creative project you need assistance with
- Your unconscious mind will churn this around in the background for you without you even realizing it
- When you come back to the problem or task later, you will find it easier and more familiar