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What You Think Could Be More Important Than You Think: Texas May See The Coming Of A New Era In Men

Aug 18, 2007
What you think could be more important than you think; That is, what you unconsciously think could play a more crucial role in your conscious thoughts and actions than previously believed, according to recent research.

Over the last few years, experiments in the United States and Europe have proven that we clean up more when a faint scent of cleaning solution is present, are more competitive if a briefcase is within view, and are more cooperative after seeing words like "dependable" and "support." This was true in experiments even when subjects were only briefly exposed to the stimuli and were completely (consciously) unaware of the triggers that changed their behavior. Scholars claim such results reveal that our subconscious is much more active, purposeful, and independent than scientists had supposed.

We have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness. Sometimes these goals are in line with our conscious intentions and purposes, and sometimes they're not," said John A. Bargh, professor of psychology at Yale University.

Such findings could have a dramatic impact on the health care and health insurance industries, to say nothing of politics and advertising. For instance, if it is proven that we can actually control more of our behavior than previously believed possible through the manipulation of unconscious thoughts, therapies like meditation, aromatherapy, color therapy, and hypnosis -- which many believe act on the unconscious mind -- could be covered someday by most health insurance policies. For states like Texas, with 25% of its population going without health insurance, and many of the mentally ill going without care, this could be big news.

For businesses based in practices like the martial arts and yoga -- springing up all over the state, particularly in the major cities of Dallas, Houston, and Austin -- it could mean being able to bill health insurance companies for their services in the future.

Bargh and Lawrence Williams, also of Yale, co-authored a breakthrough study demonstrating that the way we perceive someone can be affected by even minor, unrelated stimuli. The psychologists ran a series of experiments on unsuspecting undergraduate students in which a phony lab assistant overburdened with an armload of materials and a cup of coffee "accidentally" bumped into subjects. The "assistant" asked each student to hold the coffee, which was either warm or iced. Later, the students were asked to read about a hypothetical person and rate that person based on certain criteria. Those who held the iced coffee consistently reported the fictional character as colder, less social, and more selfish than those who held the warm cup of joe.

In 2004, Stanford University psychologist Aaron Kay also singled out undergraduate students. Subjects in his experiment were asked to play an investment game; half the participants played while a briefcase sat at the opposite end of a large table. The other half was placed in an identical setting, but enjoyed the company of a backpack during the course of the experiment instead. Those who played in the presence of the briefcase were consistently stingier with their money, and none of the participants had a marked perception of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.

Authors of the study claim the mere presence of the briefcase "unconsciously generated business-related associations and expectations," and that the brain specifically chooses a "program" to run -- in this case, "compete."

The brain seems to utilize the same neural circuits to execute an unconscious act as a conscious one, giving credence to claims that unconscious goals persist with the same determination as conscious goals and motivations. It may even explain why we act rudely, for instance, without being aware of it -- perhaps triggered by an unregistered irritation or even, as Bargh and Williams might suggest, by completely unrelated stimuli.

The answer, or at least part of it, may lie in the subcortical areas of the brain, says Chris Firth, professor of neuropsychology at the University College London, and author of Making Up the Mind: How the Brain Creates Our Mental World. A team of English and French neuroscientists, headed by Firth, conducted brain imaging scans on eighteen men and women while they responded to a set of flashing images.

Results revealed that conscious and unconscious thoughts ran similar circuitry patterns, and that the ventral palladium -- an area of the brain below conscious thought -- was especially active when subjects responded. Such data fuels the theory that we make decisions from the "bottom up," that these more primitive parts of the brain weigh the reward of an action and decide on what to do before even sending the information "up" to areas running the higher levels of consciousness. All this occurs within fractions of a second, well before our conscious awareness has time to pick it up.

If the theories of Bargh, Williams, and Firth were to prove true, then those practices deemed "alternative" by the Western world, such as meditation and aromatherapy, may eventually elevate to the same status as many "conventional" practices. If our perceptions and decisions are formed, first, in the subcortical areas of the brain, and influenced by sight, sound, smell and sensation before we even consciously know it -- and at virtually every moment - doing things like playing soft music during rush hour traffic, or lighting the right scented candle before going to bed, could make a major difference in the quality of our lives. It's ironic that science can actually, simply prove that it knows less about us than we already know about ourselves...at least on some level.

Being aware of how the "little things" affect us on an everyday basis is an important aspect of making sure your health, on every level, is the best it can be. How you take care of yourself will certainly affect you as you age, and eventually your wallet, as well.
About the Author
Pat Carpenter writes for Precedent Insurance Company. Precedent puts a new spin on health insurance. Learn more at Precedent.com
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