Because of my work in the the world of healthcare, specifically on the role of the brain, I get a lot of interesting questions on brain function. Yesterday a client asked me two great questions that I think everyone will relate with, "Dr. Nick, sometimes I feel like I am really indecisive about the important decisions of my life. Why is that and how can I make better decisions in the future?"
Now I work on brain function. I am not the person to ask when it comes to making "better" decision or better life choices and you can find the proof deep in my facebook pictures, but I do know how to make the whole process easier on your brain. Let me refer you to a great study...
Albert Jan "Ap" Dijksterhuis is a famous psychologist out of the Netherlands. He published a study that he performed in 2006 about unconscious thought. In this study he had two control groups receive information regarding car purchase. One group was then given plenty of time to think and deliberate over the information while the other group was given puzzles to distract them and they were told not to think about the cars. Afterwards both groups were put on the spot about what cars they would purchase and the reasons behind their answers and to the surprise of the testers, the group distracted by puzzles performed better.
As a result of this study, and many studies like it, Ap Dijksterhuis has formulated what he calls the unconscious-thought theory (UTT). His research provides evidence that conscious thought is preferable to handle simple issues, whereas complex issues are better tackled by unconscious thought.
Your conscious part of your brain relates with your attention. Whatever you are focusing on right this second (hopefully this article) is under the role of your conscious brain. This accounts for about ten percent of your brain power. The other ninety percent is background operations and known as subconscious or unconscious. Although your unconscious brain is preoccupied with vital functions like keeping you alive, it also has processing power. In fact it has A TON of processing power. Think about the difference between ten percent and ninety percent. Even though you don't use all ninety percent in your background processing the bandwidth of the unconscious brain still has so much more potential and it does not require your attention.
So your unconscious brain basically has a super power of processing lots of information and making connections while you can put your attention elsewhere? Exactly! But didn't we already know that? I'm sure most of us have a friend or loved one who has told us to "sleep on it" at one point or another. This is a great time for the unconscious brain to go to work on our problems. Or maybe some of you can relate with trying to recall a memory or an answer to a trivia question and it doesn't come immediately, and yet it always seems to come in the middle of the night when you no longer need that information. That was your unconscious brain doing the work for you! Super cool.
I would recommend that you use this super power the next time you are confronted with a complex issue, whether it applies to work, relationships, or just everyday problem solving. Give yourself some time to think through the issues while solving any basic questions in the process (2+2=4 and other basic kind of stuff) and then move on from the issue before your mind gets occupied by worries, guilt, shame, fear, anger, etc. Distract yourself with other work, errands, games, fun! that you can think of and later on you will notice that the answer seems more obvious.
We have a tendency to overthink things and while we overthink we energize our worried, anxious and frustrated thoughts which serve as the biggest distractors to finding answers to life's toughest questions. My advice is to do your best with letting go of your fears and anxieties and to let your unconscious brain do the heavy lifting. Use your attention to focus on the things that you enjoy and let the answers come more naturally.