Outsmarting Consciousness

by F.

Consciousness doubtless has some evolutionary benefit, but it can also be a pain in the ass. Often, we are most happy when we are least conscious—as in “flow” states, where we are doing something (say, skiing or dancing) which requires no conscious thought.

As someone who for many years had a defective and overly intrusive consciousness (due to OCD), I’m always looking for ways to outsmart my conscious mind and let my non-conscious mind work its magic. I’ve found that my conscious mind is fairly stupid and error prone, while my non-conscious mind is amazing (and yours is, too: after all, your brain is reading this—that’s amazing).

A paper in this week’s Nature Neuroscience, suggests a way to outsmart consciousness: betting. I haven’t downloaded the paper yet, but here is the abstract:

Studying consciousness is difficult because asking subjects to report their awareness of a stimulus perturbs that awareness. A new paper shows that asking subjects to wager on whether their response is correct can solve this problem.

The paper is here. This feels right to me. Recently, we’ve been playing this math game for kids called Muggins. On the Muggins site is a little applet that help you practice your Muggins skills—essentially, taking 3 random numbers between 1 and 6, and 2 random operators among {+,-,/,*), and saying whether a given equation can be made true or false using those numbers and operators in any combination. Here’s the applet.

What’s interesting about this applet, to me, is that we don’t actually “solve” the equation. We “bet” whether it is true or false, which, to me, is much more fun. And faster. It takes almost no conscious thought. And, you can “feel” the truth or falsity of the equation. It seems to me this might be a great way to tune your mathematical intuition. All without consciousness getting in the way.