Home All Let Your Unconscious Mind Go to Work for You

David J. Pollay, MAPP '06, is a co-founder of the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA). David has an Economics degree from Yale University and has held leadership positions at Yahoo!, MasterCard, Global Payments and AIESEC. He is an Executive Coach who specializes in business relationships. He is also an author and keynote speaker known for his best-selling books, The Law of the Garbage Truck (how to navigate negativity) and The 3 Promises (how to create personal fulfillment every day). David's articles are here. For permission to reprint David's articles, please contact him.

“Think!  Think harder.  Come on!  Think.”  How often have you said that to yourself?  If you just think harder and faster, you’ll figure it out. 

Science is saying, “Wait a minute.”  Literally, the message is, “Wait a minute.”  Your most creative ideas do not come to you after you squint and make a thinking sound, “mmmmm.”  Research is pointing to a better way to get the best answers:  It’s through your unconscious mind. 

Ap Dijkersterhuis and Loran Nordgren of the University of Amsterdam have found in their extensive research that people make better decisions if they involve unconscious thinking.  In their research paper A Theory of Unconscious Thought they describe how  “…unconscious thinkers made better decisions than conscious thinkers or immediate choosers.” Dijkersterhuis and Nordgren discovered that when people were given an opportunity to think about other things following the presentation of a problem to solve, they did better than participants who were asked to solve the problem immediately, or those who were asked to concentrate on the problem before they responded.

Think about it.  When have some of the best and most important ideas come to you in your life?  Where were you?  What were you doing at the time?

Most of us report that our most creative ideas come to us when we’re exercising, reading a thought-provoking book, praying, meditating, doing laundry, playing with our children, sitting on a plane, driving a car, or when we wake up in the morning. 

Isn’t it great when a big idea suddenly comes to you?  But how is it possible?  You weren’t even thinking about it; your focus was somewhere else.  Your conscious thought didn’t produce it.  It was your unconscious mind at work. 
Our brain never sleeps; it’s always on.  Our brain is considered the most powerful supercomputer on the planet; its memory and problem solving power are unequaled.

Dijkersterhuis and Nordgren describe the comparative power of the conscious and unconscious mind.  “Depending on the context, consciousness can process between 10 and 60 bites per second.  As an illustration, if you read you process about 45 bits per second, which corresponds to a fairly short sentence.  The entire human system combined, however, was argued to be able to process about 11,200,000 bits.”

So how do you use that power every day?  What do you plug into your own personal supercomputer every day?  What do you give it to think about?  What’s your positive ritual?

Here’s what I do each morning.  Everyday after my “awe and gratitude” exercise (see my March column), I tell myself that I am a writer.  And I get detailed.   I describe everything I find gratifying about writing, and I visualize my plans.  Why?  I love writing and I want to do more of it.  I feed my supercomputer with these thoughts every day.  Every morning I have a positive ritual of focusing my thinking on what I enjoy doing the most.

Psychology researcher Jon Haidt in the Happiness Hypothesis wrote, “And whenever one pursues a goal, a part of the mind automatically monitors progress, so that it can order corrections or know when success has been achieved.”

So start each day by thinking about what you love to do.  Give your unconscious mind something to think about while you’re off consciously doing other things. 

Enjoy your next “ah-hah” moment!



Dijksterhuis, A. & Nordgren, L. (2006). A theory of unconscious thought. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1(2), 95-109.

Dijksterhuis, A., Bos, M., Nordren, L., & van Baaren, R. (2006). On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect. Science, 311(5763), 1005-1007.

Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.

Concentration courtesy of Nancy Waldman

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David J. Pollay 2 May 2007 - 12:54 am

For a good resource on work related to the unconscious mind, especially the study of intuition, check out http://www.senia.com/category/best/intuition/ . Positive Psychology Daily News editor, Senia Maymin wrote her Masters Thesis on Intuition. I’ve read her paper and it’s excellent.

Timothy 2 May 2007 - 3:27 pm

Thanks so much David! I read your article after working for 20 hrs non-stop, I was completely exhausted and my brain’s stuck…obviously I miss the morning reflection, to express and feel the awe and gratitude for everything and everyone I have in my life, and to reflect on how I can practice what I love doing in the day.

Hong Kong is a place full of pressures, no matter from work, studies, family and relationship…. Erich Fromm stated that a lot of people live for the past or the future—regretting what they didn’t do, or hoping for fortune in their future—whereas few live in the present. It happens even worse under the ‘busy and efficient HK life style’.

I am eager to send your message about ‘awe and gratitude exercise’ to all my fds from HK, to remind every of us to appreciate the common every day pleasures of life, treasure what we love and belong, think about what we love to do.

Thanks for your sharing in advance!

Caroline Miller 2 May 2007 - 6:23 pm

Love this article, Dave! When you harness the unconscious mind with some of the newest research on visualization, you’ve got some gangbuster stuff going. There’s a huge new thing in “Time” magazine about the science of the brain that goes into this, so thanks for being so cutting-edge! Love seeing Dijekterhuis quoted — his research is way cool.

Nick Hall 2 May 2007 - 11:47 pm

Interesting, to the point, and applicable as usual! Nice.
Your article has me thinking: Shad Helmstedder + Ap Dijekterhuis = powerful subconscious!
This is a powerful tool for those that might find other interventions to increase their happiness difficult. Repeating specifically directed auto-suggestions daily can retrain our minds to accept greater well-being.

Chris 3 May 2007 - 4:20 pm


Using the science of computing, and thinking of the human brain as the world’s best supercomputer is such an affirmation of human potential. It makes me think, “what is my subconscious supercomputer working on every day?”

My father used to teach me this lesson whenever I was digging through the house looking for something I had misplaced. “Go do something else. Take a walk. Stop thinking so hard about it. Your subconscious will remind you where you put it.”

Smart guy, my dad!

David J. Pollay 4 May 2007 - 2:21 am

Wow Timothy! Your stamina is impressive! Timothy, I find I have greater positive energy throughout my day when I make time for my “Awe and Gratitude” exercise each morning. Timothy, here’s the link to the exercise.


And I can relate to your HK experience. I lived a similar life in New York when I started this practice.

Timothy, thanks for spreading the good word!


David J. Pollay 4 May 2007 - 2:30 am

Thanks Caroline! All the research on the power of the unconscious mind is exciting. And The Time Magazine spread was a good read. Thanks for the post!


David J. Pollay 4 May 2007 - 2:36 am

Thanks Nick for the warm review! I always appreciate your feedback. You make an important point about how this exercise could help us “retrain our minds to accept greater well-being.” I think you’re right and hope this is the effect people experience.


David J. Pollay 4 May 2007 - 2:42 am

Hi Chris,

Isn’t it great when our parents turn out to be right!

Your question is a great one to ask. It might encourage us to take greater care with what we plug into our supercomputer minds each day.



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