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Reading and Calculating With Your Unconscious 85

lee1 writes "Using special techniques that present information to one eye while hiding the information from the conscious mind (by masking it with more distracting imagery presented to the other eye), researchers have shown two new and very unexpected things: we can read and understand short sentences, and we can perform multi-step arithmetic problems, entirely unconsciously. The results of the reading and calculating are available to and influence the conscious mind, but we remain unaware of their existence. While we have known for some time that a great deal of sensory processing occurs below the surface and affects our deliberative behavior, it was widely believed until now that the subconscious was not able to actually do arithmetic or parse sentences."
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Reading and Calculating With Your Unconscious

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  • I knew that (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 18, 2012 @02:26PM (#42020533)

    Like when my wife insists that we had an entire conversation about taking out the trash while I was playing a video game.

    • by cellocgw ( 617879 ) <> on Monday November 19, 2012 @01:25PM (#42028635) Journal

      Like when my wife insists that we had an entire conversation about taking out the trash while I was playing a video game.
      You did, you know: like all other conversations with her, it consisted of her talking and you tacitly agreeing. :-)

  • OK (Score:5, Funny)

    by colinrichardday ( 768814 ) <> on Sunday November 18, 2012 @02:27PM (#42020541)

    My students can't even do this consciously. :)

    • by jhoegl ( 638955 )
      Try harder
    • Re:OK (Score:5, Insightful)

      by AthanasiusKircher ( 1333179 ) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @04:11PM (#42021441)

      And in other news, researchers found that subjects could tap a foot in sync with music while doing another task and not consciously paying attention to the music... or, well, subjects could do pretty much anything "unconsciously" if it was something they have done thousands of times and does not require novel thought.

      Seriously, is this really that surprising? For most literate people, word recognition seems "automatic." We don't consciously have to sound out the letters of each word, nor even consciously parse the syntax of a sentence. Same with really basic arithmetic (well, at least for people who still actually are drilled on basic arithmetic in schools).

      If a person can tap a foot to a beat and even respond to changes in tempo etc. automatically without even thinking about the music (a much more complex task, I think), is it really a stretch that our brains just "know" that 2+2=4? That is, without us consciously having to go, "umm... let's see, if I visualize two fingers on one hand, and two fingers on the other, and put them together, well, then, it's 1, 2, 3... uh... 4! Yeah, 4!"

      It feels almost like an automatic response, seemingly requiring no conscious intervention... just like people reading this post now just "know" what the words say, without actively consciously parsing the letters into words and sentences. It wouldn't surprise me if a mathematician could even integrate "unconsciously" or chemist could see the product of a basic chemical reaction "unconsciously," since these are trained repeated behaviors. Now, if someone could do a task that required novel thought involving a stimulus never seen before, that would actually be interesting and perhaps surprising.

      If anything, this experiment is only novel for trying to isolate such responses in an abnormal way. We don't normally try to do arithmetic in "the background" of consciousness in the same way we might tap our feet to music or... I don't know... manage to get popcorn into our mouths while watching a movie without thinking about the trajectory of our hands (a task again that I think is arguably more complex than simply "knowing" or maybe just "remembering" that 2+2=4).

      • by gr8_phk ( 621180 )
        And any day now science will discover that meditation actually does something useful.
  • by sandytaru ( 1158959 ) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @02:30PM (#42020567) Journal
    I'm not sure their method for suppressing consciousness is as locked down as they believe it is. Someone with a near-eidetic memory could take a "snapshot" of the static image in one eye, and hold it in conscious memory even while dealing with the images in the other eye. (Frankly, video games have taught us how to do this sort of stuff quite well.)

    And even if this is the case, I'm not sure what, if any, useful information we can extra from the study, other than "this is cool."
    • This simply seems like an extension of the cocktail party effect ( or Priming ( it's not entirely new, it does show that inattentive processing can be a little more sophisticated than previously thought, but it is not a game-changer.

  • dupity dupity dupe (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    This is a dupe: []

    dupity dupity dupe
    dupe dupity dupity dupe dupe
    dupe dupity dupity dupe dupe
    dupity dupity dupe

  • Imagine your brain as a multithreaded program. Each thought runs on its own CPU set. The thalamus acts as the debugger, and can step through one thread at a time. When you are "debugging" a thought, that is your conscious thought. Unsupervised thoughts tend to wander around randomly and seldom produce anything useful. These are your unconscious thoughts. Unconscious thoughts are no less capable than the conscious ones, and as the experiment indicates are perfectly capable of thinking through any problem. Th

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tech49er ( 824086 )

      worst analogy ever []

      also, it's more like an autonomous hardware subsystem, firing an interrupt

      • Here, the criticism is more illogical than the theory itself. "Mind" IS a computer, because it computes. I am a traveller because I travel. What is the big deal there?

        Some people do not like the qualitative connotations it creates, but they are simply illogical.

  • by Yogiz ( 1123127 ) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @03:26PM (#42021077) Journal

    Looks pretty consistent with the kind of view of human conciousness, as forms the core of Peter Watts' "Blindsight". The body can do most anything without being conscious of it, we just put a rubber stamp on all the actions and call them our own.

    If the subject interests you I highly recommend reading the book. It's available free from author's homepage: []

    • Looks pretty consistent with the kind of view of human consciousness, as forms the core of Peter Watts' "Blindsight".

      I just realized that the main charter in Blindsight is named "Siri", same as the Apple search app. Although, considering that his book came out in 2006, it would seem it pre-dates the Apple term.

    • by Twinbee ( 767046 )
      I think even normal people can experience blindsight (or something resembling it) in a couple of ways:

      1: The first is to look in the center of your field of vision, and concentrate on something at the very edge of your vision. You can't really 'see it', but you can detect the very basic shape and colour.

      2: Have randomly placed words on a page. Sometimes, you'll be able to think of a word that randomly pops to mind, then look a little to the left/right/up/down, and that's the word you unconsciously pic
  • by Hentes ( 2461350 ) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @03:38PM (#42021171)

    is just a test of memory, not reasoning.

  • In psycho-linguistics, it has always been understood that parsing is an sub-conscious, automatic process. Parsing sentences consciously is extremely slow, as every 2nd language learner knows, and we can do it at a speed of about 4 words per second without any problem. But the experiments as described in the extract do not warrant the conclusions. Effects of lexical priming have been known for a looooong time (since the 1930s, I think), and it remains to be seen if none of the results can be attributed to an

  • by Theovon ( 109752 ) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @03:42PM (#42021199)

    There's a lot of cognitive science I could ramble on about here, but the fact is that the conclusion stated in the summary is obvious to anyone who has studied brain function in detail.

    Putting aside the debate over whether or not consciousness is an epiphenomenon, just about the only part of thought that we are consciously aware of is information that takes a trip through short-term memory. Everything else is in dedicated (innate or due to learning) circuitry that just computes what we've learned and either spoon-feeds our consciousness with the results or directly interacts with the sensory and motor systems. (In other words, we are only consciously aware of punctuations in multi-step processes.)

    Consider when you first learn a new skill. At that time, it's entirely conscious, because we have to pay special attention to every step. Like when we're new to cooking and baking some new recipe, we consciously reason over each step in preparation. But when we've gotten really expert at something ("unconsciously competent"), most of it goes on automatic. We don't think so much about the steps; we just execute them, and our conscious mind can wander off on something else. By that point, many of us have forgotten what we went through when learning and generally have a challenge explaining how we're doing what we're doing.

    Other examples: Playing an instrument -- really experienced players practice so much that the motor system is completely on automatic, while the conscious mind is (often to a very limited extent) focusing on the sheet music and timing reference (conductor or percussion). Reading radiology images -- an experienced doctor can show you a lesion they've observed, and after it's pointed out, you can sorta see it, but finding it in the first place is a well-honed skill that can be very difficult to explain; how do you tell that that one extremely vague splotch is a lesion while one nearby is normal?

    The really interesting bit is this: Most people can explain more or less how they do something. But none of that is from direct access to how we ACTUALLY process the information. Rather, our explanation about how we THINK we do something is based on conscious theories we construct to explain behaviors we've observed in others and ourselves. In other words, our "skills" and our "'mental models' of our skills" are stored in entirely different parts of our memory.

    It's also interesting to study teachers. Really good teachers (particularly on subjects more abstract than what you get in grade school, which are mostly rote learning from books) are people who have some combination of a good memory about how they learned something and a really good takent for self-observation when they perform a skill (i.e. a good conscious mental model of their otherwise unconscious skill).

    The next level up is teachers who are good at teaching how to teach. :)

    So, to address the article here: Our unconscious minds can read and do math, because the unconscious mind is what already does those things anyway. (Once you're past elementary school.)

  • I'm constantly bewildered by the inclination of humans to assign, for various reasons, less than extraordinary capabilities (such as 'not possible to do arithmetic') to such faculties of our bodies that run things like intercellular communication and maintain proper heartbeats and fuel/oxygen mix ratios etc. Why would the framework (the thing that contains all the rules) be something less than that which it produced? SMH... Now if we could begin to look at the sum total of processes as being derivations
    • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Sunday November 18, 2012 @03:57PM (#42021323) Journal

      Why would the framework (the thing that contains all the rules) be something less than that which it produced?

      Because properties emerge from complex systems. Just because it occurs at one level doesn't mean the building blocks that level is made of can do it too. A transistor can't add, groups of transistors can.

      • given a signal at the source/collector + signal at gate/base = close circuit from source/collector to drain/emitter. This is exactly what I am speaking of...and is seen in intruding in many different parts of our perceptive realities...such things like 'because the neolithic stone builders were alive many thousands of years ago...our first assumption is that they were not as intelligent as us...couldn't possibly be...' In the thread of the transistor/groups you used as an example, one synaptic connection
  • maybe this is part of why some folks can look at a pattern and then KNOW that say A B C D F G H J is "missing" parts (and what those parts are).

    The geek thing of What happens if we do THIS can also be included in this

    (and YesHOLD MY BEER and watch this is NOT part of this)

  • We have several "mental organs", performing different functions. Lumping them all together as "the Subconscious" retards our understanding of thought processes.
  • Sounds like an S.E.P. [] field to me...

  • I can do this. I remember as a kid having to write out the numbers 1-100 in a 10x10 grid so I just started doing it and got almost immediately distracted thinking about something else and the next thing I know it's done, sort of. For some reason, I managed to skip a few numbers here and there and had to rub it out and do it again, painstakingly trying not to get distracted.

    Same with the maths question sheets they used to give us in primary school. Done with barely a conscious thought, but riddled with off-b

  • We have various sensory inputs from all over our body that give us a very incomplete view of our bodies current state. I think it best to think of consciousness as our sense of what's going on in our brains -- not the boss of what's going on -- but an incomplete sense of what's going on. From this point of view, if the conscious mind is distracted it doesn't prevent other parts from still working.
  • Come on, this is not new knowledge. We all, or at least a lot of people, are well aware that if you leave the radio on at night tuned to a talk station, the content of the talk gets worked into your dreams.

    So what does that mean? Well, Unconscious? Check. Parsing sentences? Check. Integrating those the semantic content of those sentences into your dreams into the "plot" of your dream-or in other words "problem solving" - check.

    On the last point- yes, it is problem solving. Getting the meaning out of a

  • Experiments like this bolster Julian Jaynes' theory of a new human mentality that arose at different points in different cultures. It is not a genetic shift, but rather, a shift in the way the brain functions based on the plasticity in the development of our brains as we grow. In Mediterranean culture he dates it to around 1000 BCE, between the origin times of the oral versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey (which have very different depictions of the 'inner' lives of the characters). In his book, "The O

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