Recent research gives us new insights in the importance and possibilities of unconscious processing and helps us answer the burning question whether one could benefit from a class he or she didn’t attend to.
The ability of doing well at school without paying attention during lectures or seminars is just one of the many examples that come to mind when talking about unconscious information processing. Recent publications reveal new findings and theories about the relation between consciousness and information integration in individuals and might help us solve the question whether it is possible to learn something from a class you did not pay attention to.
In one of his seminars, Michael Carroll, founder and course director of the Neuro- Linguistics Programming (NLP) Academy, spoke about how the conscious mind, the analytical, learning and outcome demanding part of our mind, occupies only a small part of the processing going on in our brain. ‘Right and alongside this,’ he said, ‘there is something much bigger,’ referring to the un-conscious mind, which includes all the other processes that one is not aware of at any given time. Say at this very moment, wile reading this blog-post, many physical processes like breath, heartbeats and eye-blinks happen under your nose, unnoticed. Until now, of course, because I made you aware of it. And it gets even more interesting. At this very moment, while your attention is scanning each word and sentence of this blog-post, you are not consciously remembering the color of your pillowcase, the smell of freshly baked cookies, the fact that snow is cold or what your favorite pair of shoes looks like. All the information you’re not using at this very moment is part of your unconscious mind and, according to Michael Carroll, stored ‘under the surface’ i.e. in your (accessible) memory.
It was long thought that only conscious processing made information integration possible. However, recent data suggest the contrary to be true, too: unconsciousness seems to allow information processing as well. The question is to what extent?
In 1992, Lewicki et al. already stated that unconscious information processing could lead to development of primary cognitive processes, defining how one perceives information, forms an opinion and creates preferences and liking et cetera.
In one of her papers published in 2012 in the Brain Sciences journal, Dr. Birgitta Dresp-Langley even stated that the unconscious mind is fundamental for all consciously gained experiences.
As mentioned earlier, recent psychological research gave groundbreaking new insights in unconscious processing and thus information integration without awareness. In September 2014, neurologist Dr. Christof Koch held a lecture at the Allen Institute for Brain Sciences about Tononi’s Integrated Information Theory of consciousness Koch, according to whom consciousness is a scientific solvable problem, stated that our only perception of the world is our conscious state and that one can become conscious of something without attending to it. In that same period, Koch, together with Mudrick and Faivre, published a neuropsychological paper, implying that consciousness is not required for certain types of information integration. This rang a bell. However, we should not jump to conclusions too fast. The study also suggests that although unconscious integration seems possible, its abilities and scope are nevertheless very limited. Moreover, according to the publication, only small amounts of simple stimuli can be registered unconsciously. Thus, despite unconsciousness now seems to have a role in integrative processes, consciousness is still a prerequisite for more advanced information integration.
It is safe to say that stimuli involved in information acquisition during class belong to this latter concept. Since unconsciousness occupies the biggest part of the mind, it surely covers some part of the learning process during lectures and studying. But, since its role is not prominent, not paying attention in class won’t help you get your grades up. Let alone becoming a straight-A-student, which if you ask me does not only involve paying attention an-sich. But, this opens another discussion. One I would rather not pay my attention to.