The pilot and autopilot within our mind-brain connection: Conscious vs. unconscious, habit vs. non-habit examined

(Medical Xpress)—Have you ever driven to work so deep in thought that you arrive safely yet can't recall the drive itself?  And if so, what part of  "you" was detecting cars and pedestrians, making appropriate stops and turns?  Although when you get to work you can't remember the driving experience, you are likely to have exquisite memory about having planned your day.

How does one understand this common experience? This is the question posed by Professor of Biology, John Lisman and his former undergraduate student, Eliezer J. Sternberg, now in medical school, in a recent paper in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.  Lisman explains that once a task such as driving has become a , you can perform another task at the same time, such as planning your day.  But looking closer at these two behaviors, driving and planning, one can see interesting differences. The Habit system that is driving you to work is non-flexible: if the new parking regulations at work require you to go left instead or right, the that you'll go right is very high. On the other hand, if you heard yesterday that your boss has scheduled a group meeting for noon, the likehood that you'll plan your day accordingly is high. In other words, your non-habit system is flexible.

What interests Lisman and Sternberg is the of the habit/non-habit systems to concepts of conscious vs unconscious. These concepts were popularized by Freud, who posited a duality of the human mind.  Behavior can be influenced by both the conscious system and unconscious system. Freud compared the mind to an iceberg——with the small conscious system above water and the larger unconscious system below.  Modern cognitive neuroscience now accepts this duality.

The mind can be described as having an unconscious and conscious part.  And the can be described as having both habit and non-habit systems.  Lisman and Sternberg argue that these two views can be merged: there is a habit system of which we are unconscious and a non-habit system of which we are conscious.

This simple equation turns out to have enormous implications for research on the mind-brain connection. Experiments on consciousness are done in humans because you can ask them to report their awareness, something you can't do with animals. On the other hand, there are many invasive procedures for studying what's happening in the brain of animals.  So how can you study consciousness in rats? 

Lisman and Sternberg provide a simple answer—ask whether rats have habit and non-habits. Scientific literature demonstrates that rats indeed have both habits and non-habits. For instance, when a rat comes to a choice point on a maze (and the reward site is to left), rats display very different behavior depending on how much experience they've had with that maze.  With relatively little experience, rats pause at the choice point and look both ways before making a decision; in contrast, a highly experienced rats zooms left without stopping. Experiments have shown that different parts of the brain are involved in these two phases.  Lisman and Sternberg make two conclusions: first, that rats, like us, have conscious and unconscious parts of the brain and second, that from experiments on rats we can learn to identify the parts of the brain that mediate conscious vs unconscious processes.

In their paper, Lisman and Sternberg also discuss potential objections to their hypothesis, and suggest further tests.

"Our tentative conclusion is that it is reasonable to equate the habit system with unconscious processing and the non-habit system with conscious processing," says Lisman. "We further argue that both systems are capable of sensory processing and action but utilize different brain regions, have access to different forms of memory, and excel at different computations."

For instance, only the conscious system can store and recall information from episodic system, a process mediated by a structure called the hippocampus.

The benefit of such a dual system, Lisman says, is that it gives an organism the ability to multitask; the unconscious system can execute background tasks, leaving the conscious system to perform more difficult tasks, such as mentally preparing for a presentation while driving to work.

"Understanding how different brain regions function together to produce behavior is a major goal of modern neuroscience," says Lisman. "If both the conscious and unconscious system can process sensory information and produce actions, there must be mechanisms that determine which system will control behavior."

In some cases, he says, the underlying logic is simple, as in multitasking, where the unconscious controls the routine behavior. But, in other cases, he says, the logic of control is less clear; you may decide to go on a diet yet suddenly find yourself removing ice cream from the freezer. The study of habit and non-habit behavior in animals provides a path toward understanding how conscious and unconscious systems compete for control.
 
Lisman says he hopes his effort to unify the understanding of conscious and unconscious systems and habit and non-habit systems will lead to a better understanding of what we are as human beings.

Related Stories

Now you see it, now you know you see it

Nov 30, 2009

There is a tiny period of time between the registration of a visual stimulus by the unconscious mind and our conscious recognition of it ― between the time we see an apple and the time we recognize it as an apple. Our ...

Recommended for you

Obama's BRAIN initiative gets more than $300 million

1 hour ago

President Barack Obama's initiative to study the brain and improve treatment of conditions like Alzheimer's and autism was given a boost Tuesday with the announcement of more than $300 million in funds.

US aims for traumatic brain injury clinical trial success

13 hours ago

An unprecedented, public-private partnership funded by the Department of Defense (DoD) is being launched to drive the development of better-run clinical trials and may lead to the first successful treatments for traumatic ...

New learning mechanism for individual nerve cells

19 hours ago

The traditional view is that learning is based on the strengthening or weakening of the contacts between the nerve cells in the brain. However, this has been challenged by new research findings from Lund University in Sweden. ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Eikka
not rated yet Jan 11, 2013
Have you ever driven to work so deep in thought that you arrive safely yet can't recall the drive itself? And if so, what part of "you" was detecting cars and pedestrians, making appropriate stops and turns?


The same parts as always. I just simply lack the memory of performing these tasks because I didn't commit it to long term memory.

Very often I do something that requires me to remember a previous action. Let's simplify it as: if I remember that I have done A then I will do B. Later on I will only remember doing B and have no recollection of doing A, but since know I have done B then at some point I must have had a memory of doing A.

That to me means, that the action A was a concious act just the same as any. Only the memory of it has faded. In my opinion, the "unconcious" is simply that which we fail to remember doing after the fact - while during the act itself there is only concious action.
Thrash
not rated yet Jan 15, 2013
Years ago, as a radio operator in the Navy, I read/decoded audible morse code. Nowhere has the duality of the brain been more evident to me than during long sessions of reading audible morse code (up to 35 wpm). While reading (listening) my hearing and writing was unconciously linked. I was able to keep up ONLY while I was not actively (conciously) decoding the dots and dashes I heard.

I remember sessions of 20 mins or more where my mind would wander and I would plan my weekend while I kept on decoding morse code without any concious effort. In fact, I was more likely to trip up trying to actively decode the sounds or anticipate the next word than when my mind wandered.