Your Unconscious Mind Might Be More Capable Than You Think

Prof. Ran Hassin of the Hebrew University is conducting controversial research based on the theory that our unconscious is able to perform the same basic functions that our conscious processes perform.

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Ran Hassin, dressed in black, sitting on a black chair. Another black chair hangs upside down next to him. A black wall serves as backdrop.
Ran Hassin.Credit: Ilya Melnikov

Since the dawn of civilization, philosophers and scholars have grappled with the question of what it means to be a human being. To have highly developed morality? Self-awareness? Intelligence?

“Everyone wants to find the Holy Grail – to write the article that begins with the sentence ‘It is only the human being who can do X,’ to understand the unique thing that consciousness does,” says Prof. Ran Hassin, head of the Department of Cognitive Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Hassin too was interested in doing that. In his attempts to define the limits of human consciousness, he has focused over the past decade on research into the unconscious. The experiments he has conducted examined, among other things, processes of unconscious memory, decision making, motivation and formulation of opinions. He assumed that gaining an understanding of the limits of the unconscious would enable him to draw conclusions about the uniqueness of consciousness.

There was only one problem: In experiment after experiment, study after study, it turned out that cognitive functions – which, according to the scientific consensus, require the conscious processing of information – can also be executed unconsciously.

“The literature is rife with claims such as: ‘Memorizing numbers is possible only consciously,’ or, ‘decisions can only be made consciously,’” Hassin explains. “But it is not clear what these claims are based on. True, when we do something consciously, we are aware of the fact that we’ve done it, and when we do something unconsciously, we are, by definition, unaware of it. But based on the fact that we are not aware of these actions, it cannot be concluded that we cannot perform them.”

The experiments Hassin conducted in his laboratory, in collaboration with students he has supervised over the years, demonstrated that humans can read simple sentences and solve problems of subtraction without being conscious of doing so. He also succeeded in influencing the political opinions of his subjects and provoking conflicts unconsciously. “One brick after another,” the professor wrote in an article published last year, “the wall that separates conscious processes from unconscious processes has increasingly shrunk away.”

When, during a sabbatical in New York Hassin tried to come up with an integrative approach to considering the question of what the findings in his experiments indicated (along with those from similar studies by several colleagues) – he reached a sweeping conclusion: “The unconscious can perform every basic cognitive function that can be performed consciously.” These functions include making decisions, controlling emotions, exhibiting inhibitions or doing arithmetic.

But consciousness is not a requisite for executing these functions, says Hassin, who paraphrased President Barack Obama’s election slogan in the service of science, in the title of a 2013 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science he called, “Yes It Can: On the Functional Abilities of the Human Unconscious.” That is, the human unconscious is much more sophisticated than we had thought.

Sigmund Freud is pictured in his working room in 1938. Credit: AP

Does this mean that Freud was correct? That Descartes was wrong? That I can go to a gym and in the meantime write this article unconsciously? And how is it possible to read without being conscious of reading?

Poets rhapsodized on the unconscious, philosophers philosophized about it and hypnotists attempted to penetrate and modify it – even before a baby was born in Austria who was named Sigmund Freud. But the famed physician who specialized in neurophysiology before opting for the soul over the brain is the uncontested popularizer of the unconscious, the person identified most of all with the term.

Hassin is not among Freud’s admirers. “I have not found in his writings any intellectual inspiration or data that would back up his claims, and in that sense I was disappointed,” he says. “That doesn’t mean that they haven’t had immense cultural influence.”

As a cognitive psychologist, Hassin does not think in Freudian terms about the human soul in general or about the unconscious in particular; rather, he focused on processes of information processing, cognitive processes and mental representations.

“The easiest way to explain this is by using the comparison of visual perception — sight,” Hassin explains, during an interview on the beach in Tel Aviv after downing a coffee and a cola. “Do you see a glass here?”


“Then you are aware of the fact that there is a glass here. And if you tell me that you do not see a glass, and I am convinced that you are not lying or trying to placate me, but that you actually cannot see it — I will conclude that you are not conscious of the fact that there is a glass here. But people are not just cameras. Processes of perception are affected by unconscious processes, schemas, opinions and motivations. Physically, different people see the world in different ways, because our eyes are different and because previous knowledge and previous memories and motivations influence perception. For instance, studies have shown that poor children perceive a 50-cent coin as being larger than do wealthy children. Unconscious processes determine our conscious existence. Perception is active, and is influenced by things that take up space in your memory.

“From the moment you are born, you amass an insane amount of memories. You are using them constantly, and yet don’t know how to explain how the immense knowledge you have amassed in memory is barely accessible to you at any given moment. In other words, it is unconscious. For example, if you know how to ride a bicycle, then while you are pedaling, your body maintains equilibrium without your being conscious of it. The balancing component of bike riding is unconscious. ‘Episodic memories’ – experiences you have undergone – are another form of memory: If you do not consciously raise them, you will not be aware of the fact that the memories exist.

“Semantic knowledge,” Hassin continues, “is stored in memory in associative networks. For instance, table and chair. If I trigger something in your network of associations – for example, I say ‘table’ – you will think of things related to this network more than you did previously.”

In the jargon of experimental psychology, this triggering process is called priming. One customary technique for causing this unconsciously is, for example, subliminal projection of the image of a table for enough time to allow the brain to absorb it and trigger the network of relevant associations, but not long enough for the observer to be conscious of it. (“The subject in the study sees the stimulus, but cannot report that it is there.”)

Hassin: “When you go to a restaurant, you expect to see a certain sort of people, and if I cause you to think of a [particular] restaurant, the associations related to it will unconsciously arise. One researcher from Holland demonstrated that when you do priming related to a library — for instance, you ask subjects to find 10 words out of a large collection of words, a relatively high percentage of which are associatively related to a library — and afterward you ask the subjects, seemingly without connection, to read something out loud — they will read it more quietly than do subjects who have not undergone such priming.

“Daniel Kahneman claims that the unconscious system is primarily dedicated to associations. The common perception is that everything found in this sort of associative network acts unconsciously. I think that is a deficient perception. It is wrong, because the unconscious can do much more than that.”

Hard-working research bee

With his long braided ponytail and gray T-shirt printed with an image of Snoopy, the slender Hassin, looks like a high-school kid whose hair has gone prematurely gray.

He is 49, a native of Jerusalem, the child of “parents from the so-called ‘48 generation.” His mother, Yael, was a doctor of criminology. His father, Eliyahu, was an advisor to Yigal Allon during his time as foreign minister and education minister, in the 1970s[ck]. His older sister Tal works at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. Following military service in the Intelligence Corps’ Unit 8200, during which he met Sarit, “my partner for the past 750,000 years and the mother of my children,” Hassin enrolled in the multidisciplinary program for outstanding students at Tel Aviv University. He was mainly interested in the philosophy of the mind and in psychology. While he was studying, he also worked as a news editor at the daily Davar. He went on to do a doctorate in physiognomy, on the subject of, “Does the face reveal anything about the character traits?” The choice of this subject was a mistake, Hassin says, and places the blame on Shimon Peres.

“It started with an argument between me and [the late cognitive and mathematical psychologist] Amos Tversky, who was one of my advisors. He thought that you could learn a lot of things about Peres from looking at his face, and I argued that you can’t. At a relatively early stage, I realized that what interested me was not physiognomy at all, but the unconscious, and I did my post-doc at NYU with one of the pioneers of research in the field, John Bargh.” In 2002, Hassin returned to Israel where he devoted himself to research on “the functions that the unconscious can do, where the limits on it come from, and why consciousness is needed.”

Until that sabbatical in New York, Hassin was a typical, industrious, worker-bee-like researcher. “I thought at the level of n + 1 — for example, if it could be shown that it is possible to cause people to act in order to accomplish one goal unconsciously, then I attempted to see if it was possible to unconsciously spark conflict between goals. And each time, I would then try to think what might be the next assertion.”

He adds, “What we have most recently demonstrated in our lab is that reading and comprehension of short sentences and arithmetic problems can be performed unconsciously.”

Other unconscious processes whose existence and influence he has already demonstrated include, for example, the modification of an ideological position after subliminal exposure to an image of the flag, and the effect unconscious goals have on the intensity of one’s emotions.

“I aggregated all of these ‘n +’ findings into a general model,” Hassin explains, adding two explanations that he claims make his conclusion both obvious and logical. “First, like every other valuable resource, consciousness has limited processing ability. We have too little of it. An act like reading a simple sentence takes up most of our consciousness. All of us have a lot of goals, plans and tasks in our lives, which weigh on the cognitive system. We have to juggle between them. What happens to all of this mental tumult while we are reading? One possibility is that nothing at all happens. That at any given moment you can consciously perform one action, and the other things are all on hold. But that is not a particularly efficient arrangement. It is preferable that the system be able to carry out these things consciously and also unconsciously.

“Secondly, consciousness, as we now experience it, apparently developed relatively late in the evolution of our species. Without language, it would be hard for us to imagine it, for instance. Therefore, it is unlikely that a large segment of our mind is exclusively dedicated to conscious activity. Moreover, relatively high-level cognitive functions, like self-control and inhibition, are also found in pigeons. To our understanding, pigeons do not have self-awareness — they do not stand in front of the mirror and say, ‘I had a crappy day today’ — but they are capable of not eating the piece of grain next to them if they know that a larger piece of grain is not far away.”

Zebras and chairs

But, scientists aren’t satisfied with logic and rationalizations. They want evidence, or at least empirical data based on experimental results. “For a period of 30 years or so, there was an argument in the realm of psychology as to whether the unconscious can or cannot read a single word, although researchers agreed that more than one word was impossible,” says Hassin.

New technology, called continuous flash suppression, advanced research on the unconscious exponentially. If in the past it was possible to show stimuli for only 30 one-thousandths of a second until they reached the subject’s consciousness, with CFS it is possible to do so also for 3 to 4 seconds.

“In this method, you separate the eyes, show each of them a different stimulus. One eye is shown a static stimulus, for instance, the sentence ‘Doron is cool.’ The second eye is bombarded with a ton of visual information, for instance, colorful squares that rapidly change. I will ask you to immediately inform me as soon as you can distinguish a written word. Because since the changing colorful squares are ‘overwhelming’ your consciousness, they will be your conscious experience. It will take a few seconds for you to notice that you are seeing words with your other eye, and another few seconds until you can identify what is written. The sentence is being shown to the subjects the entire time. They are exposed to it – but do not consciously experience it.“

It emerged that not only is it possible to read an entire sentence unconsciously, but that during that time its semantic meaning can also be processed and comprehended. In one of the experiments, Hassin and his colleagues exposed subjects to different types of sentences, both coherent (“Ron broke the chair,” “The lion bit the zebra”), and non-coherent (“Ron broke the water,” “The chair bit the zebra”).

Watermelon centering the basket.Credit: Dreamstime

Hassin: “We found that sentences of the second type break through into the consciousness in a shorter amount of time – in other words, that the unconscious ‘prioritizes’ the non-coherent over the coherent. Another study, conducted by Dr. Liad Mudrik, demonstrated a similar phenomenon related to images. For instance, a picture of someone shooting a basketball, with a basketball in his hand, will break through into the consciousness slower than a similar picture of someone shooting a watermelon at the basket.

“Using a similar method, we showed subjects a subtraction exercise using three digits, for instance ‘9-3-2= ?,’ and ensured that it would not reach the consciousness. Afterward, we showed them a number, which could have been the result of the subtraction exercise or not, and asked them to tell us when they noticed the number. The time it took to penetrate the consciousness was faster when the number that was shown was the correct result of the subtraction exercise, even though the subjects were unconscious of the exercise that had been shown to them. A group of researchers in Ohio repeated the paradigm of this experiment and a similar phenomenon was found in the case of addition, but not for subtraction.”

And how do you explain the different results of the two studies?

“I have no idea. These are complex phenomena, and we still don’t adequately understand them. The subjects of the experiments were university students. The researchers in Ohio raised the hypothesis that perhaps because their student population was weaker than ours, and because subtraction is a more complex action than addition, the students who took part in our study performed the unconscious addition so quickly that the result ‘died’ – was forgotten – before the appearance of the number that was consciously absorbed. Conversely, it takes more time to perform subtraction, and therefore the outcome was still accessible. In any event, these findings indicate an ability to unconsciously perform symbol-based tasks that involve several steps.

‘Saving Freud’

Hassin is only willing to talk about his latest research in general terms, if at all. Revealing the hypotheses behind his studies could bias the results, he explains, should any potential future subjects happen to have read about them in Haaretz.

“One of the new questions we’ve begun to ask is, when do you become conscious of a certain detail? For example, I am sitting and looking at the sea. When do I become conscious of the fact that there is a boat out there? This question deals with the way in which unconscious processes shape our consciousness at a given moment, and the factors that relate to it. For example,” he continues, “motivation. If you are interested in buying a car, you will suddenly notice the model and production year of every car you see. If you are looking for a romantic partner, you will experience people differently than when you are in a relationship. For instance, you will more quickly notice attractive people who speak nicely.

“In the meantime, we have found that the time it takes for penetration into the consciousness is a pretty stable thing, a sort of trait of each and every one of us. We are attempting to understand if this is some boring, adverse effect of another trait – for instance, quickness of response. We wanted to see if someone who is quick-witted is characterized by faster penetration of stimuli to the consciousness, but the answer is no. Perhaps we have found a human trait here that we were previously unaware of: speed of consciousness. If such a trait does exist, it is likely that it will have interesting consequences on the way in which people experience the world and act within it.

“Other experiments in our laboratory test advanced reading processes. For example, is it possible to unconsciously identify relationships between sentences, to understand a narrative and answer simple questions. There are some early signs of a big discovery there, but there are no conclusive results that have been subjected to scientific oversight. The consequences of this hold interesting potential. Think of what it means if we can carry on conversations with the unconscious by means of language.”

The unconscious is lingual?

“Most people would say that complex unconscious processes are not lingual, but there is a tool that hints that it is perhaps possible to communicate with the unconscious by means of language.”

In the meantime, Hassin has come up with some practical applications based on his insights. For example, he is a consultant to a startup called Chooze, which is developing an application to improve decision making, based on conscious techniques that appraise unconscious opinions.

Hassin: “At any given moment, most of your opinions do not penetrate your consciousness. I am half-Moroccan and half-Russian. Do your opinions toward half-Moroccans influence the way you perceive me? Maybe you think that you don’t have any opinions on half-Moroccans. But, along with the opinions you think you have about women, or Arabs, or anything else – you also have unconscious opinions toward that group. Conscious and unconscious opinions exist in parallel, one alongside the other. This can be tested by means of an implicit-association test [IAT]. There is a lot of data that indicate that there is a dissonance between our conscious opinions and our unconscious ones, and that unconscious stereotypes affect our behavior.

Unconscious associations influence what parents choose to name their babies. Credit: Dreamstime

“The first application we are developing at Chooze — with the help of these tools — involves choosing of baby names. Let’s say that you are wavering between ‘Ran’ and ‘Yossi’ and are unable to decide. The application will present you with an IAT-based test that will examine the unconscious associations you might have in relation to each one of these names.”

The scientific community received Hassin’s theory, about how unconscious processes can perform the same basic functions as conscious ones, with a mixture of enthusiasm and incredulity. His work has been quoted in textbooks and introductory courses on the theory of personality which focus mainly on Freud – the individual whom Hassin loathes intellectually – based on the assertion that the Israeli researcher actually provides certain empirical support for Freud’s theories on the unconscious. Hassin has his reservations about this.

“The scientific data lag behind Freud’s assertions, most of which lack any empirical support,” he explains. “If saving Freud has to do with the contention that the unconscious exists and can be investigated – then that is true. But if saving Freud has to do with the mechanisms that he proposes, and with anal repression – I don’t think that we have saved anything. The unconscious in which we are engaged is different from that of Freud. It is a lot deeper and more complex than what Freudians and their like believed. Jung said that he did not understand Freud’s obsession with sex. Not that sex isn’t important.”

More data needed

Cognitive psychologists have a harder time swallowing the ideas expressed by Hassin’s “Yes It Can” slogan, and especially the empirical findings that back it up. “Articles critical of ‘Yes It Can’ appeared pretty soon after my article was published. Yes, our findings are controversial,” he admits.

The critiques come from two different directions: “One contention is that our theory includes some extreme assertions, and therefore they have to be supported by extreme data – that in order for us to ‘update’ the common wisdom, which relies upon a lot of data that show that the theory is untenable, much more data that show otherwise are required. I understand that. The assertion that lies at the basis of the theory is contrary to what people know, and doesn’t sit well with their intuition and existing knowledge. If you have a lot of reasons to think there is no God, and someone gives you one reason why there is — then you will seek more information before you are convinced. With respect to the relatively high cognitive abilities, as regards arithmetic, for example, there are few data right now.

“The second argument against the theory is that we are speaking of an invalid deduction. I contend that here is evidence that indicates that four cognitive functions are occurring unconsciously, and therefore it is possible that all of the functions occur unconsciously. But I have not shown empirical data related to all the functions. Instead I have leapfrogged over the existing data. The advantage is that this is a clear position, one with which it is easy to work – and easy to work against.”

Hassin himself qualifies the contention that constitutes the basis of his theory: “The emphasis is on the very ability itself, on the fact that abilities exist in the conscious and also in the unconscious. I am not dealing with the question of whether it is possible to perform the things less well or better, faster or slower, consciously as opposed to unconsciously. Similarly, the fact that cognitive function can be performed unconsciously does not mean that it will always take place unconsciously. If everything I am saying is correct, what does our consciousness do? What is it good for? Why do we have it? There are a lot of theories about the subject. According to the most prevalent ones, consciousness enables us to put together pieces of information, or information of different types, and makes possible the understanding of complex events.”

Hassin presents two pictures, at the center of which appears a young man pulling back on the string of a bow; in one of them he is about to shoot an arrow, and in the other – a tennis racket.

“According to one theory, understanding that something in the picture is not right requires conscious thinking and processing of an integrative sort. A second, no less prevalent theory is that the consciousness is a sort of megaphone: It enables information that becomes conscious to be ‘published’ in the brain. This theory holds that unconscious information can have an effect, but conscious information can have a greater effect. Maybe I can unconsciously read the message, ‘Run away before everything collapses.’ And maybe I can also understand it. Maybe it will also depress me, but I don't run away immediately. I will not plan out an escape route. I will not make the necessary phone calls to the bank or my friends. I will do all of these only if the information is conscious.

“These two theories are very strong, and there are smart scientists standing behind each of them, and both have a grain of truth. But I think they are missing the mark. Consciousness is not a requisite for integration [of information], for ‘being published in the brain.’ We have good data that show that integration can also happen unconsciously. Perhaps not with the same frequency, the same depth, the same seriousness – but it can happen.”

So what does explain the necessity and uniqueness of our consciousness?

“The short answer is that we don’t really know. We have hints, and I also have a few suspicions of my own regarding the ways in which we experience consciousness and how it changes our lives. We are dealing with the most interesting question in the world, and are slowly but surely making our way forward toward an answer.”

Our everyday experiences are not experienced through continuous flash suppression and subliminal stimuli. To what extent is it even possible to draw any conclusions from your experiments on the way in which the unconscious behaves in real life, outside the laboratory?

“An experiment conducted in a laboratory enables you to ask things in a clean way — to isolate a single factor each time, in order to examine its effect on the phenomenon being studied. True, this may keep you from being able to draw conclusions about the way that things work in the world, because life is more complex than the laboratory. The use of subliminal techniques is of no interest to me in itself, but rather the way it enables us to posit that a certain process was carried out unconsciously. Thus, the unconscious reading of four words is not interesting per se; what is interesting is that it tells us about the abilities of the unconscious to engage in language, in cultural systems – and not only, say, in something vital, like hunger. Our characterization is entirely relevant to everyday life, and you can draw conclusions from it on emotions, on behavior, on thinking processes.”

What about studies with LSD and other consciousness-changing drugs? Can they help us understand the unconscious?

“Of course, if we could use LSD to understand how the cognitive system works, our situation would be better. Anything that plays on cognition and manipulates it, which examines what can be done in a given biological brain framework, is relevant to research. But these sorts of experiments are no longer done in mainstream psychology. Even marijuana is hardly being examined.”

Are we getting closer to the day when we can better decipher dreams? And maybe also affect the content of dreams?

“To control dreams, no. To decipher – I haven’t thought about it. I am theoretically obligated to say that yes, I think that dreams are profoundly connected to the unconscious processes that shape them. Therefore, if I better understood the contents and process of your unconscious, I would be able to better understand why your dreams look the way they do. But if I am trying to think of an experiment that would help me find an answer to that. I cannot think of one.”

“I think, therefore I am.” But if it is possible to think unconsciously, then “I think” does not define “I am.” So have you revised your doctorate?

“It may be that I am thinking and do not know I am thinking. Perhaps I will manage to persuade you that I am talking with your unconscious. But who is answering my questions, if you are unconscious of it? If you have unconscious experiences, who experienced them? Is it the same ‘I’ who experienced consciously?”

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