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Conscious and subconscious perception and how it is reflected in memory and thinking

The way we perceive the world affects the way we store and use information. The conscious mind is not the only way of receiving information. Subconsciously, we are perceiving all the time – whether we are aware of it or not, subconscious processes are there. For example, at an early stage of visual processing there is a ‘low-level map-like representation’ which most are not consciously aware of (Rensink 2000). It is only at higher levels of processing, where attention plays a major role, that we ‘understand’ our environment and events occurring there.

This brings us to two ways of perception – explicit/conscious and implicit/subconscious perception.

Explicit Perception

We are limited in our ability to process information consciously. In typical development, conscious perception becomes very strong, but very restricted and subjective, while subconscious perception is often ignored or suppressed. Very early in life we learn to ignore anything “irrelevant”: we are conscious only of “our” world – anything beyond our constructed reality is ignored. ‘Normal’ people function in an extremely limited range of reality; brain fills in the gaps and predicts the final picture, i.e., we ‘see’/’hear’, etc. from the mental (subjective) “world” we create in our mind.

Automatic perception

‘Normal’ perception is automatic: we do not bother to see, weknow” what is out there, i.e., we “see” concepts, not things (or whatever is out there), thus limiting/restricting our perception even more, and at the same we keep on creating “our” world (consisting of ‘perceptual constancies’). So most of the time, ‘normal’ people function on autopilot. Research on skill acquisition reveals that conscious awareness fades as soon as automaticity develops, leaving unconscious mechanisms largely in control. But it is not only about skill acquisition, it is also about becoming a ‘citizen’ of the world constructed by the cultural concepts, which become cognitive and linguistic filters of the information – thus restricting even further what is available for conscious processing.

Implicit perception

However, subconsciously and/or preconsciously it is possible to take in an infinite amount of unprocessed information which is literal and objective and is received directly, without conscious interpretation. (Williams 1998). In autism, conscious perception is weaker (in comparison with the ‘normal’ consciousness), while the subconscious perception may be very strong, unrestricted and objective. Some autistic people use the preconscious system to take in information.

Subconscious memory

It is reflected in memory: because we “see” concepts we remember a gist of the situation, “forgetting” what really happened. Thus ‘normal’ conscious memory is limited and subjective; it is verbal, explicit and more easily forgotten. In contrast, subconscious memory, common in sensory-based thinkers, is sensory-based (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, tactile, etc.) is implicit, procedural, and resistant to forgetting (Grandin 2006).

The unlimited storing capacity allows them to take in a great amount of information though they themselves are ‘absent’ from the process. That is, they are not aware of what information they have accumulated, that is why they can't access it without triggers. When it is triggered from the outside, they surprise not only those around them, but themselves as well with the knowledge they have never thought they have. It is sort of ‘unknown knowing’. (Williams 1998).

Subconscious thinking

Sensory-based thinking is subconscious in most people, while those like Temple Grandin think with the primary sensory-based subconscious areas of the brain that brings certain advantages that are not available to those who rely on conscious thinking. For example, ‘normal’ people have a difficulty to conceptualize multi-dimensional processes, which can be linked to unconscious processes operating “in a space of a higher number of dimensions than that of our perceptions and conscious thinking” (Matte-Blanco 1988).

By distinguishing between subconscious and conscious perceptual processing, we can distinguish between conscious and subconscious types of intelligence, the latter with little conscious awareness (‘unknown knowing’).

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