Which Unconscious Mind Do You Trust–Or Train?

The Debate Between the “Minds”
Conscious or Unconscious

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D.Min.

What kind of press does the conscious mind and the unconscious mind get within the NLP community? Which “mind” gets the biggest billing? Why?

As Bob and I have thought about this, and noticed it in terms of training advertisements, it strikes us that the conscious mind actually doesn’t get very good press. In fact, sometimes the conscious mind gets treated as “the problem” in human experiences. When we read some of the advertisements for trainings, the ads seem to imply that the conscious mind makes people less effective and give them more problems. In other ads, you get the impression that if the conscious mind doesn’t actually mess people up, it’s not worth bothering with in terms of “real” learning or “accelerated” learning.

“We teach directly to the pattern maker — the unconscious mind”

“The royal road of learning is through the unconscious…”

“Unconscious installation was the soul of Milton Erickson and Virginia Satir’s work”

“If you learn consciously — you merely understand; you can’t do.”

“In Bandler, McKenna, Breen trainings sitting there with a pen and notebook is virtually useless as a learning strategy as it guarantees you’ll be placing your attention in the wrong place”

Following up on what we wrote in Dealing With the Downside of NLP: Restoring Integrity to NLP (Anchor Point, May 1997), we would like to offer some balance to this tendency of over-rating the unconscious mind and downplaying the conscious mind. We would further like to propose that in NLP training we offer a healthy balance so that we treat and train both facets of “mind” — the conscious part and those other-than-conscious parts.

Defining the Conscious/ Unconscious facets of Mind

Bandler and Grinder (1979) wrote (as edited by Steve Andreas) the following in Frogs Into Princes:

“Don’t get caught by the words ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious.’ They are not real. They are just a way of describing events that is useful in the context called therapeutic change. ‘Conscious’ is defined as whatever you are aware of at a moment in time. ‘Unconscious is everything else.’ (p. 37).

In thinking about these terms and using them to help us to effectively navigate the territory of human awareness, being “conscious” provides the more focused definition while “unconsciousness” conveys a very broad labeling. Here it stands for “everything else!” Accordingly, we need to distinguish between various kinds of unconscious awareness. Thus, minimally we have at least the following facets of the unconscious mind:

1) Consciousness that has become unconscious

2) The autonomic nervous system that remains “out of conscious awareness”

3) Subconscious Information — below the threshold level for consciousness

4) The Forgotten Mind

5) The Repressed Mind

6) The Meta-Levels of Awareness

1) When Consciousness Goes Unconscious

George Miller (1956) wrote his classic paper, “The magic Number 7 + or – 2”, at the beginning of the Cognitive Psychology Movement. This distinction enables us to recognize our cognitive information processing in terms of “chunking.”

Thus we say that we order and structure information in terms of 5-to-9 “chunks” of information at a time. We all did this when we first learned the alphabet. We went to school and saw the “A a” on the blackboard as a “chunk” of information that the teacher wanted us to learn. When we got that one down, in terms of visual and auditory recognition, and had progressed to kinesthetic reproduction (actually writing it) — a major task in those days!, then we went on to “B b.” Eventually we got numerous “chunks” represented and stored … and as this habituated, it became less and less at the front of consciousness. In other words, it became more and more in the back of the mind. And as it did, it became increasingly less-conscious.

As we keep learning the alphabet, we kept adding “chunks.” Eventually we got up to the 5-to-9 “chunks” of information limit (i.e. A/a to I/i). But then another process kicked in. As our “chunks” habituated — they began to “clunk” (another technical term?!) together so that “A/a, B/b, C/c” became a “chunk.” Then, “E/e, F/f, G/g” became a chunk, etc. Eventually, the entire list of 26-letters became one chunk. And after that all of those learnings themselves (i.e. clunking, chunking, and how to chunk!) became one unconscious chunk.

In other words, “chunks” grow. They clunk together to form larger and larger self-contained sequences of anchored, or linked-together, pieces of information that then function as single units. In this way we move through the conscious/unconscious levels of learning:

1) Unconscious incompetence — Incompetent and ignorant of it!

2) Conscious incompetence — intelligent enough to recognize our incompetence!

3) Conscious competence — learnings that develops more and more skill and understanding.

4) Unconscious competence — the learnings clunk together and drop from the front of the mind, go to the back of the mind, and then “out” of conscious awareness.

5) Conscious competence of Unconscious competence — the trainers (or expert) state of mind that allows him or her to teach and train others in a skill.

This developmental process from unconsciousness to consciousness describes the stages of the learning process. It indicates that when we learn something consciously, and over-learn it so that it habituates in our neurology, it becomes “installed” in what we call an “unconscious part of the mind.” At this point, we truly and deeply “know” our stuff! When our learnings reach this stage, they comprise our in-tuitions. This term literally describes our “in” – “knowings.” We have an intuitive knowing about the subject. For instance, we intuitively know how to drive, how to skate, how to read, how to do mathematics, how to play the guitar, etc. As an aside, Daniel Dennett (1991) says that we better describe the “unconscious driving” phenomenon as “a case of rolling consciousness with swift memory loss” (p. 137).

This also illustrates one “royal road” to the unconscious — conscious learning. We can put things into our unconscious mind via learning and over-learning.

2) The “Unconscious Mind” of the Autonomic Nervous System

One facet of “the unconscious mind” (or facet of “mind”) involves the “mind” (intelligence) of our autonomic nervous system. This “mind” keeps our heart beating, regulates our neuro-transmitters, hormones, neurological bio-chemistry, governs our breathing, internal organs of digestion, endocrine and immune systems, etc. This “mind” obviously receives input from outside the body about temperature, pressure, oxygen, smells, gravity, balance (the vestibular system), etc. In response to such “messages” (information), it processes that information in terms of its internal own needs and wants. Then it acts upon that information in its outputs in neurological responses and behaviors. It does all of this apart from any of the human symbolic systems (whether of propositional or non-propositional language, music, mathematics, etc.).

In the 1970s, researchers began to recognize the power of bio-feedback mechanisms that allow us to gain conscious control or management over our autonomic processes. Prior to that, theorists assumed that we could not effect this part of “mind.” But now we know that we can. Via bio-feedback processes, we effect our blood pressure, temperature, brain waves, etc.

And yet, while we have begun to learn some of the mechanisms that allow us entry into this more “hard-wired” part of human neurology and experience, this world runs primarily in an unconscious way. Or we could say, our “unconscious mind” runs it.

We now know that by directing and activating the right hemisphere of the brain to vividly experienced and felt images, scenarios, and metaphors, we “hypnotically” produce such an inwardly focused concentration that it activates autonomic nervous system processes. From this we can control blood pressure, the experience of pain, heart rate, etc.

We also have a “genetic mind” as Noam Chomsky pointed out in his classic research in linguistics that defeated the Behaviorist Model of Skinner. We do not and cannot learn language as merely a stimulus-response, associative conditioning. Rather we have some kind of a language generator and language acquisition mechanism within that comes as part of our species heritage. This allows us to unconsciously produce word-strings and to understand word-strings — even those that we have never heard before.

3) The Subconscious “Mind”

Another facet of our unconscious consciousness involves that information that exists below the threshold level, and therefore prior to consciousness. The signal value of this information occurs below a level that we can “sense” consciously. Robert Dilts (1983) described such facets in Roots of NLP. Here occurs such subconscious elements as light outside the ultraviolet electromagnetic range that our eyes can see, sounds/vibrations beyond what our ears can hear, etc.

The existence of a “mind” within our Mind that can over-hear (so to speak) data from the outside and which does not emerge into consciousness — speaks about a second “royal road” to the unconscious part of mind. Namely, it speaks about apart-from-consciousness learning. Many things seem to get into this part of “mind” without going through consciousness. We pick up tidbits of information, and little side-pieces of data. Such information gets in “at unawares.” Here we learn but don’t know that we learn — let alone what we learn.

What kind of information specifically gets in via this manner? We believe that information structured as embedded commands, tonal shifts, connotations, suggestions, presuppositions, meta-level framing, etc., gets in.

Such “learning” seem to operate as a spill-over effect from being alive. That is, we pick up on things, but don’t “know” (consciously) that we do. We especially recognize this in our dreams. Frequently we will incorporate the sound of water, an alarm clock, someone speaking, a dog barking, etc. from the outside — but continue dreaming all the while making that stimulus a part of the dream. Once, while lost in thought while rocking in a chair — I suddenly “woke up” from the reverie to notice that I had somehow unconsciously synchronized my rocking with some background music.

In NLP, the idea of overloading consciousness has received a lot of press. Some have taken this idea of overloading and used it in their trainings. They even advertise their approach as such. “We overload consciousness so that once you get to over-load, everything else just slides right into the unconscious mind — immediately giving you unconscious competence.”

For us, this idea has some problematic features. If overloading works that well and in that way — why don’t we set up elementary, middle, and high schools so that the kids go for 12 hour days? Why don’t we have the teacher lecture at them for 4 hours without a break, get them to overload — then everything afterwards will “just slide right in” and they’ll “have it”? Why don’t we do that? Does it work for you to get overloaded — do you suddenly become a “mean-green learning machine?”

It just doesn’t work like that, does it? The assumption driving that idea just doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Typically, the majority of learning goes through the conscious mind that does the work of incorporating, implementing, applying, relating, etc. What we have here involves some empty hype that does not serve NLP well.

Apparently “the spill-over effect” does not send lots of data into the human system nor even the best data. How much of these bits and pieces get it? And how do we then process it in ways that serve us well?

4) The Forgotten “Mind”

We call unconscious the “mind” within us where we store all of our memories and prior experiences. In the 1950s, Penfield and other researchers discovered that electrical stimulation of various parts of the brain triggered automatic recall of long forgotten experiences. These “recalls” did not merely involve the “data” in a pure or cold form, but a seeming re-experiencing of the information. At that time, they concluded that everything we ever experience gets recorded and lies inside somewhere.

Later research studies, however, questioned this universal quantifer. Theorists eventually concluded that while much of what we experience does get recorded, everything does not. We do not record in “memory” what we do not attend or pay attention to. Our “not-knowing” of that information does not mean that “it is unconscious.” It may mean that we didn’t not encode it in the first place. Thus just because someone has a “dark area” on his or her time-lines does not necessarily mean that they have experienced some trauma. They may have just not encoded anything of significance during that period. Or they may have lost interest in it so that it slipped away.

Further, we can and do forget things. We can lose memory of previous learnings, experiences, conversations, etc. Just go through old boxes of reports and notes that you wrote when you attended school twenty or thirty years. Or read journal writings of everyday conversations, experiences, and happenings from five years ago — and experience the surprise of not even recognizing much of it. Not only has it become unconscious, it has become unconscious and un-accessible.

I (MH) did this recently with old notes I came across that I I made from some calculus, trigonometry, and advanced mathematics classes. Not only had I forgotten that I had taken such notes — I couldn’t even recall the learnings in a way that could make sense of the information. “What in the world do these formulas mean?” AI can’t believe that I once knew this stuff!”

5) The Repressed “Mind”

While Sigmund Freud did not invent or initiate the idea of the unconscious mind, he certainly popularized it. And as he did, he made it a part of Twentieth Century knowledge and parlance. Accordingly, he spoke about the pre-conscious, the conscious, and the sub-conscious. By the latter, he referred to the part of “mind” that we push-down and repress. He theorized that as we use various defense mechanisms we build barriers against consciousness. We do not want to know. We fear knowing (this structure operates as a meta-state). So as our “ego” (the “reality principle” as he called it) can’t handle certain information, it suppresses, represses, denies, projects, etc. It develops an attitude (has an agenda) against knowing.

Freud looked upon this less-than-healthy facet of the unconscious a the place of repressed negative emotions, rampant and tabooed sexual fantasies, and deep-genetically oriented urges or “instincts” like his postulated “the death instinct.”

To Freud’s genius, he developed numerous methods for recovering the repressed unconscious material.

1) Free floating associative thinking: lie quietly and just notice whatever intrudes into consciousness, let it come, don’t push it away or down, let it come and say so.

2) Dream welcoming, recording, and analyzing: notice the images and presentations that your unconscious mind offers you in dreams. Commit yourself to recording the dreams, then later pull apart the dream manifest content and latent content.

3) Catch and notice “Freudian Slips.” Catch the unconscious mis-statements that arise which frequently indicate thoughts and awareness in the other-than-conscious mind. Then inquire whether it indicates any “agenda” against some knowledge.

With regard to this facet of unconsciousness, Milton Erickson (1976) said, “Your patients will be your patients because they are out of rapport with their unconscious mind.” (p. 276). This suggests that true mental health involves a good balance and rapport between the conscious and the unconscious “parts” of Mind. We develop what we call “unconscious parts,” “bitter roots,” and other internal incongruencies because in some way, one part of the mind has gotten out of harmony with another part. The Mind no longer operates whole and integrated.

6) Meta-levels of Awareness

Another facet of Mind that becomes unconscious and that then exhibits the power and nature of unconsciousness occur in the meta-levels of consciousness. This refers to those frames-of-reference that we construct as we move through life — those frames that we then use as our meta-level referencing system. This includes such subjective mental-emotional phenomena as beliefs, values, criteria, “rules,” domains of knowledge, conceptual understandings, etc.

As we learn things, they not only become unconscious but many begin to operate at a meta level to regular everyday primary level consciousness. These become our meta-programs, our meta-states, our meta-level domains of knowledge. We can certainly bring these meaning (semantic) structures into consciousness — but typically they operate as simply the frames-of-reference within which we live and function — as our presuppositional reality.

A conscious thought thus involves not only an awareness of something — but also a higher level awareness: awareness of the awareness of something. I can drive with awareness of streets, people, traffic signals, etc., but unless I have awareness of that awareness, it seems (and so we say), that we’re driving unconsciously. Rosenthal (1990, “Why Are Verbally Expressed Thoughts Conscious?” as quoted in Dennett, 1991) says that what distinguishes a conscious state from a non-conscious state involves the straightforward property of having “a higher-order accompanying thought that is about the state in question.”

Splitting Mind Against Itself
Trainings that Endanger Mind

What happens when we over-emphasize the unconscious mind to the neglect of the conscious mind? Consider how this inevitably splits Mind — thereby creating a schizophrenic division between a holistic phenomena, namely, Mind. This will not serve us well. This puts mind at odds with mind — and turns our psychic energies against our own selves.

Attempting to provide training that only uses and addresses the unconscious “mind” and doesn’t utilize the conscious “mind” inevitably (by definition) creates an imbalance and conflicted Mind. Obviously, when we use hypnotic language patterns of embedded commands, isomorphic metaphors, etc., we use some powerful technology. We also use powerful “unconscious” teaching by the use of such processes as anchoring, reframing, sleight of mouth patterns (alias, the word magic of Mind-Lines), etc. But to do such, and to not also teach the conscious “mind” the principles and processes creates individuals who won’t know why a pattern or process works. And without knowing some of the theory and understanding behind the processes, we leave people unable to evolve the model and technology. They can run the processes as a clinician (Woodsmall’s Modeling I) — but they won’t understand why it works and so won’t be able to move to Modeling II.

Some processes obviously evoke the other-than-conscious mind and can be put to very valuable use. We can present a training by giving information in a way that may seem haphazard and without reason. We may do this in order to let each person’s unconscious “mind” organize and re-organize it for themselves and to do so in ways they will find individually useful and compelling. We may use sentence fragments to not finish statements and to not close loops. Again, we may intentionally provide this as an opportunity for a listener do so for him or herself. So with the use of post hypnotic suggestions, embedded commands, and therapeutic metaphors. (Of course, the lazy and incompetent use the same so it seems fitting that we distinguish ourselves from that.)

Given this use of using unconscious processes seems to us a very different matter from intentionally conducting our trainings to only (or primarily) activate the unconscious “mind.” Or worse, to denigrate and insult the conscious “mind” as undeserving of training. (By way of illustration, a few years ago Richard Bandler got onto this diatribe and repeatedly describe the conscious mind as a “dick head.” “That’s just all it is!” Sure he did that for the shock effect it created, to create humor, and to be entertaining. Yet it seems to us that the insults and put-downs about all of the limitations of the conscious mind does more damage than good.


Here we ask what we consider some very important questions:

1) How useful should we evaluate a training if the conscious “mind” does not have access to it? How ecological? How respectful of the person?

2) Do we want to turn out practitioners who can “pull off” various NLP processes and techniques (perhaps) without understanding them? Without the ability to question them?

3) Do we really want to create learners who become that dependent on a trainer?

4) Should we only “trust” the unconscious part of the mind and not the conscious mind? To what extend do we trust the various facets of the unconscious mind?

Trusting Mind

Given that we have numerous facets of Mind, which mind should we “trust?” As mind-as-a-whole has numerous facets, which part can we appropriately “trust,” to what degree, for what, and in what way?

Generally, we will not do ourselves any harm if we trust our autonomic nervous system “mind.” This represents “the wisdom of the body” in its purest forms. We do, however, need to qualify this a little. After all, the autonomic nervous system can, and does, make mistakes. We see this, and have to deal with these mistakes, in such phenomena as allergies, cancer, and other medical problems,

Also, generally, we can trust our unconscious mind regarding our learned patterns. We can trust that part of “mind” for enabling us to walk, talk, read, write, drive a car, ski, skate, etc. Of course, if we learned errors in our original learnings — then those errors will by now have become unconscious — and we can trust that we will regularly, methodically, and systematically will make those same errors again, and again, and again! This facet of our unconscious mind simply runs programs. And it does so exquisitely! So even here we need to operate with some caution and not over-trust this facet of the unconscious mind.

We can, and should, generally trust our conscious mind. Nathan Brandon (1969) describes this by using the term self-efficacy. By this term he refers to our power or ability to operate efficiently using our mind to input and process information. It is our central mechanism for coping and adapting to reality, the “ego” or reality-principle of Freud. Ego-strength thus describes our ability to face reality for what it is, to come to terms with it, and to develop effective adaptations to it.

What other alternative do we have? If we abdicate our right and responsibility to do our own thinking, and submit to another person (“Oh please, tell me what to think, to believe, to value, to do…!”), then we fail to take responsibility for our own brain. How then can we ever learn to “run our own brain?”

Of course, we have very fallible brains. So we should not over-trust our conscious mind or treat it as if it could operate in a flawless way. It does not; it cannot. It exists as a very fallible and vulnerable mechanism. And yet it exists as our primary survival and adaption mechanism.

On the other hand, we should beware of trusting our subconscious “mind,” our repressed “mind.” In fact, we especially should not trust that “mind!” Trusting our repressions and denials will not lead us anywhere useful at all. That “mind” and the so-called “wisdom” there will make life a living hell for us since it operates by toxic beliefs, erroneous mapping, and inappropriate thinking patterns.

Further, it seems unwise to “trust” any facet of mind absolutely and implicitly. No facet of mind exists or operates in an infallible or god-like way.

Which is “The Boss?”

Sometimes we hear in NLP circles that the “unconscious mind is the boss.” But given the fact that we refer to several different phenomena by the phrase, “the unconscious mind,” we now ask — which unconscious mind do we think functions as “the boss?” Continuing this meta-modeling process, we also ask,

“Boss” of what?

“Boss” in what way, under what conditions, with regard to what?

What is the boss of the autonomic processes?

What is the boss with regard to our memory banks?

What is the boss of attention, intention, content, and direction?

If Installed Unconsciously — How Re-access?

If a person picks up information unconsciously (i.e. apart from conscious awareness), then what process do we use (or offer to another person) in order to re-access the state in which we made those learnings?

Generally, we have to take into account state-dependency of learning anyway. But this becomes even more crucial when we use a special unconscious neuro-linguistic state. Given that all learning occurs in some neurological, mental-emotional “state,” that learnings function state-dependently, then contextif we want conscious access to it. To reclaim the learnings, or to even discover those learnings, we frequently have to get back to the state in which we made them. So learnings that “go in” which bypass the conscious mind will not be available automatically to the conscious mind. inevitably plays a crucial role in both encoding and recovering the learnings later. It does


What should we conclude from all this?

First, in exploring the phrase the unconscious mind (or the term the unconscious), we have discovered it multiordinality. This means it functions as a multiordinal term. Korzybski used these words to refer to words that we can use at many different levels of abstracting. Accordingly, it represents a very special case of nominalizations, ambiguous nominalizations that mean nothing specifically until we specify the level at which we use it (see Hall, 1998, The Secrets of Magic).

How do we use the term the unconscious mind? We use it to reference numerous subjective phenomena —

1) Habitually used information that has become unconscious

2) The autonomic nervous system that remains “out of conscious awareness.”

3) Subconscious Information — below the threshold level for consciousness.

4) The Forgotten Mind.

5) The Repressed Mind.

6) Meta-levels of Awareness

This should restrain us from vaguely using the concept of unconsciousness as a catch-all idea or as a god-substitute. It should motivate us to speak more specifically and precisely about what part of consciousness we have reference to. It should hold us back from over-trusting any facet of human consciousness. It should motivate us to provide trainings that provide a good holistic balance so that we train both the conscious and unconscious mind. This seems to be the more ecological choice.


Bandler, Richard and Grinder, John. (1979). Frogs into princes: Neuro-linguistic programming. UT: Real people press.

Branden, Nathaniel. (1969). The psychology of self-esteem: A new concept of man’s psychological nature. New York: Bantam.

Dennett, Daniel C. (1991). Consciousness explained. Boston: Little, Brown & Co.

Dilts, Robert B. (1983). Roots of neuro-linguistic programming. Cupertino, CA: Meta Publications.

Erickson, Milton, Rossi, Ernest; and Rossi, Sheila. (1976). Hypnotic realities. NY: Irvington Publishers.

Hall, L. Michael. (1995).  Meta-states: Self-Reflexivity in human states of consciousness. Grand Jct. CO. E.T. Publications.

Hall, L. Michael . (1998). The secrets of magic: Communication excellence for the 21st. century. Carmarthen, Wales, UK: Anglo-American Book Co.

Miller, George (1956). The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity to process information. Psychological review: 63:81-97.

Penfield, Wilder. (1975). The mystery of the mind: A critical study of the consciousness and the human brain. Boston, MA: Princeton University Press.