JB Looks at the Non-Conscience - What's Going on in Your Brain, When You Aren't Paying Attention?


On a day-to-day basis you may have multiple goals running through your mind – losing weight, saving more money, etc. What you may not be aware of is how these goals operate below the level of your conscious awareness. In the coming series of posts I’ll discuss how these processes affect your day-to-day functioning in the world and recommend strategies to overcome some of the pitfalls of these processes.

Research has shown that once goals are activated in your brain, your brain will continue to pursue the goal without your awareness. When I use the term “goal” I’m referring to anything you may want to physically or mentally accomplish, this can be as simple as remembering the name of a high school classmate. Do you recall a time when you couldn’t remember a name and “tried really hard” to remember it without avail? Your inability to remember the name may have consciously bothered you for a while; however, as time passed you may have slowly forgotten about it – or so you thought. Hours passed, you may have even taken a nap, then WHAM! All of a sudden, you remembered the name, seemingly out of nowhere.

In reality, your brain didn’t stop searching for the forgotten name, it was working behind the scenes (without your awareness, or rather, nonconsciously) while allowing you to go about your day-to-day activities. This type of phenomenon is also evident when you wake up in the middle of the night with that “really good idea.” Evidence that your brain is never asleep and is often working on your goals without your awareness.

These nonconscious phenomena are somewhat related to research conducted by psychologist Bluma Zeigarnick, who in 1927 observed that waiters remembered orders only as long as the order was in the process of being served. His research showed that we have a better memory for what is unfinished or incomplete rather than what has been completed. Why? Because the brain keeps working on the unfinished task or goal until it has been completed or reached.

This Zeigarnick effect has many implications for your day-to-day life. For instance, if you take study breaks you will remember the study material better than if you complete a study session without breaks. During your breaks your brain is still processing the study material without your awareness; hence, incorporating breaks has an effect similar to increasing the amount of study time without the extra mental effort. An analogy of the physical outcomes observed from interval training.

The take-away message is this: if you are having trouble remembering, brainstorming, or studying. Stop what you are doing, start an unrelated task, and come back to it later. Your brain will be solving the problem behind the scenes. -- J.B

References for further reading:

Bargh, J. A. (2005). Bypassing the will: Towards demystifying behavioral priming effects. In R. Hassin, J. Uleman, & J. Bargh (Eds.), The New Unconscious (pp. 37-58). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press:

Zeigarnik, B. (1927). Uber das dehaten von erledigen und unerledigen handlungen [The retention of completed and uncompleted actions]. Psychologische Forschung, 9, 1-85.


Eddie Patel