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Your Subconscious Brain Can Read and Do Math

Researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem observed over 300 students as they subconsciously read multiple-word phrases and completed arithmetic problems.

Math on chalkboard-- by Nina Lincoff

The Gist

Understanding the human brain has been a long, fluid research process and part of that puzzle exists because of our subconscious. The why and how behind subconscious thought, reasoning, and activity in general is a bit of a mystery, which may or may not be part of the intrigue for studying it. The subconscious brain, or subconscious function, is what occurs without the conscious or aware brain being fully conscious.

Researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published their findings of an amazing function of the subconscious in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The goal of the study was straightforward: to map cognitive functions performed by the subconscious. Researchers observed the efficacy of the subconscious in reading and understanding both multiple-word phrases and completing arithmetic problems.

As it turns out, your brain can read and do math without your full, conscious awareness.

The Expert Take

"Research conducted in recent decades has taught us that many of the high-level functions that were traditionally associated with consciousness can occur nonconsciously," says the study. In a set of 13 experiments, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem led by Ran Hassin, Ph.D. showed that functions of the brain that are linked with human thinking, such as reading and solving arithmetic equations, don't actually require consciousness. The implication is that there is an undisputed link between the conscious and subconscious, and that products of the human intellect can function in both.

"These results suggest that the modal view of consciousness and the unconscious, a view that ties together consciousness with [humanly unique] capacities, should be significantly updated," said the study.

Source and Method

All experiments used continuous flash suppression, which rendered outside stimuli invisible. Unawareness was confirmed using both subjective and objective measures.

A total 372 Hebrew University students, a majority of which were female, with the average age being 23.8 years, took part in 13 different experiments. During four verbal experiments, a fixation cross dominated the visual field for each participant. The verbal stimuli were slowly faded in and participants were instructed to respond as quickly as possible.

The verbal stimuli were three-word sentences presented in Hebrew consisting of a subject, verb, and object. A quarter of the sentences contained semantic violations. Other experiments had participants view the cross and stimuli fields without eye covers, without a stereoscope, or to rate the extent to which the expressions made sense. Four experiments had participants complete or recognize arithmetic equations. The extent to which participants’ conscious understood these experiments predicted the effectiveness of subconscious pathways.

The Takeaway

Findings from multiple experiments displayed that humans can process “multiple-word expressions and solve effortful arithmetic equations non-consciously.”

It’s important to recognize (consciously) the difference between subconscious recognition and the after effects of priming, the subconscious psychological preparation for a certain set of information.

Other Research

In a 2008 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers worked against the stereotypical assumption that the brain is a "conscious-centric" entity. They reported that the unconscious exerts several independent behaviors like perception, evaluation, and motivation. These findings support Hassin’s conclusions that the subconscious has the capacity to read multiple-word phrases and complete arithmetic problems.

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