THE BLOG

The Unconscious Mind at Work

06/19/2013 08:18 pm ET | Updated Aug 19, 2013

What are some ways to spend your time at work productively? Meeting with clients and collaborators is one, surely. Reading reports, likewise. What about socializing at the water cooler? Or practicing your putting?

It's tempting to point at such activities and hiss, "stealing from the company." But what if such distractions are actually an important part of one's job performance, productivity and creativity, perhaps even more important than evenings of overtime spent beating one's head against yet another intractable problem? Luckily for the putting enthusiasts and water-cooler aficionados among us, this may not be far from the truth.

Recent research by psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis and colleagues shows that periods of distraction from one's tasks can actually help a person tackle them more successfully. Dijksterhuis's work focuses on decision making: Participants in his studies generally begin by reading information describing several cars. One might be fuel-efficient but have uncomfortable seats, for example, while another has great handling but a hideous interior. After reading about the cars, participants are randomly instructed to either sit and think consciously about the cars, turning them over in their minds, or perform a number-memory task involving memorizing sequences of digits. By performing this unrelated "distractor" task, this latter group is prevented from thinking about the cars consciously. Afterward, both groups of participants make their decisions about the cars, which are scored by the researchers: Some cars were described as being better than others, and a savvy critic will judge them accordingly.

So how do participants in these two groups perform? Incredibly, Dijksterhuis's studies have shown that participants who are distracted by the number-memory task usually make better car decisions than participants who spend time consciously thinking. How could this be? The researchers postulated that while participants were consciously performing the number-memory distractor task, their brains were processing information about the cars unconsciously, with participants unaware that this was occurring. This unconscious information processing, termed "unconscious thought," was apparently better suited to the car decisions than was conscious thinking.

But since the publication of Dijksterhuis's original paper on unconscious thought, there has been endless debate about whether the brain could really be carrying out such sophisticated processing unconsciously. With this controversy in mind, David Creswell, Ajay Satpute, and I used brain imaging to study unconscious thought at Carnegie Mellon University's Scientific Imaging and Brain Research (SIBR) center. We used MRI to measure participants' brain activity while they tackled decision problems about cars -- specifically while they performed the number-memory distractor before making their decisions. We weren't interested in brain activity related to the distractor itself, though; we wanted activity related only to unconscious thought. So we used statistical methods to subtract out the brain activity related to the distractor, leaving us with just the unconscious thought-related activity.

We found that unconscious thought really occurs in the brain: Left visual cortex and right prefrontal cortex were active in support of unconscious thought during the distractor. What's really striking, though, is that the brain regions supporting unconscious thought are some of the same regions activated when participants are initially learning the car information: Left visual cortex and right prefrontal cortex are working when participants are reading about the cars, and then they unconsciously reactivate while participants perform the number-memory task. But recall that this unconscious thought-related brain activity is not activity related to just carrying out the number-memory task: Number-memory task activity occurs in other parts of the brain.

But what if it didn't? What if our distractor just happened to be one that also required left visual and right prefrontal cortex? If we've learned one thing from neuroscience, it's that most every part of the brain is involved in a cornucopia of cognitive functions, and functions that are similar to each other tend to involve a similar set of brain regions. If the distractor was similar enough to reading information about cars (say, reading about boats), it might have recruited left visual and right prefrontal cortex -- and then where would unconscious thought take place? We've collected data hinting that if the distractor is too similar to the information to be processed unconsciously, unconscious processing doesn't happen.

So what does this say for our water-cooler posse? Sometimes, it may be wiser to take a walk than to keep pushing ahead on a problem. And we now suspect that the best break from a problem -- the best distractor -- is one that's completely different from whatever you want your brain to work on unconsciously. So rather than taking a break from emailing a client by emailing your significant other (though hopefully these are already fairly different), try a phone call instead. It's possible that interspersing cognitive breaks ("Brain Breaks," anyone?) throughout your day could give your brain time to unconsciously process all sorts of problems you're facing.

Work environments where this is easy to do are already in vogue. Google's offices are famously fun, and other firms are following suit. In addition to making the workplace more exciting, a rock-climbing wall next to the copy machine might be the perfect place to do some serious unconscious thought. And breaks need not only consist of non-work activities: Switching between sufficiently different work-related tasks, like budgeting and meetings, could do the trick (though you might have less fun).

In fact, the idea of the brain processing complex information unconsciously is hardly new: Freud and Jung posited a complex, unconscious part of the mind whose activities influence our conscious thoughts and behavior. With elegant continuity, then, modern techniques in neuroscience and psychology are beginning to reveal the brain's unconscious inner workings, bringing today's scientists, like those at Carnegie Mellon, face-to-face with the progenitors of our fields.

So the next time your conscious mind is stumped on a problem, pull out those Coltrane records (or MP3s), or grab your putter. Your boss, if he doesn't fire you, may just thank you.