Unconscious actions

On more than one daytime car trip during the past year, I’ve parked my car somewhere, gone for a walk, and come back to discover that the headlights are on. I’m always surprised and frustrated, especially because I have no recollection of turning them on in the first place. Lately, I’ve been catching myself flipping the switch for the headlights immediately upon getting into the car.

This implies that I’m performing a kind of automatic, unconscious action. My brain has created a checklist of activities to be performed when I get into the car — put keys into ignition, start car, shift into reverse, turn on headlights — that I’m not really aware of.

Now, we perform unconscious activities all the time. When we’re walking, we’re not consciously commanding each foot to go before the other, it just kind of happens. When I’m playing a C major scale on the guitar, I don’t have to think about where and when to place each finger, I’ve done it enough times that it just happens.

Sometimes, these unconscious activities prove to be a nuisance. For example, some people seem to be programmed by society to open doors for other people. But sometimes they open doors for people who are almost at the door, and the person literally has to kind of jump back to not be hit by the opening door. Obviously there’s no “polite” reason for such behavior, nor is there a rational one. If the door opener spent about half a second thinking about what they were doing, they would see how foolish it is. But they’re not thinking — they’re just doing.

An obvious question: how complex a series of unconscious actions can you program into the human brain? Can we create Manchurian Candidate style assassins, for example? Can I kidnap children out of their homes and create an army of thieves and homicidal maniacs? These are some of the fascinating questions science is beginning to explore.

9 Responses to “Unconscious actions”


  1. John Saleeby

    Where do you come up with all this unpleasantness.

  2. John Saleeby

    Patti Smith looks like Geddy Lee. Hey, don’t get pissed! I didn’t say she SOUNDS like him, I said she LOOKS like him! Oh, fuck you guys!

  3. AnonymousZ

    http://news.health.com/2010/11/12/happiness-is-a-focused-mind/
    Guess when people are most focused and most happy? According to a Harvard University student-researcher—as if you didn’t know.
    Annonymous Z

  4. John Saleeby

    I’m tired of Harvard!

  5. John Saleeby

    That’s a good article, Anonymous Zeke. That’s one of the main ideas of Zen – Keep your mind on whatever you happen to be doing at the moment and you’ll do a good job on it and feel good about everything.

    I hope there aren’t too many typos in this comment. I was thinking about licking Julianne Moore’s asshole the whole time I was typing it. I’m so lonely!

    (Saleeby shoots himself)

  6. Wil

    Yeah, that focused mind stuff gets into an idea I’ve discussed before: the happiness domain. Basically, if you have to choose from an array of choices you often feel like you’ve chosen incorrectly. And when your mind is unfocused and starts wandering, you start contemplating various life options e.g. an array of choices.

  7. John Saleeby

    Yeah, that is the fuckin’ worst. Sometimes I go into these stupid trips where I imagine stuff like I spent the past twenty five years writing novels so in 2010 I published what is universally acclaimed as The Greatest Book In The History Of Literature and get Married to Reese Witherspoon or some dumb shit. That kind of thing is fuckin’ toxic.

  8. Wil

    At least you’re not married to Patti Smith. Or Geddy Lee.

  9. John Saleeby

    Patti Smith’s Son is Married to Meg from The White Stripes. That’s HOT.