The Brain We Can’t Control

The Brain We Can’t Control

SUCCESS Foundation The Brain We Can't Control

We’ve all found ourselves in problematic situations of our own making, even when striving for self-improvement. We know what we expect from ourselves, but still realize we made decisions totally counterproductive to those expectations.

It shouldn’t surprise you that this is especially common with teenagers. People can be quick to judge the behavior of teenagers, but it’s a confusing and frustrating point in life when it can be hard to align your intentions with your actions. There’s actually science behind this. Below is an explanation from the pages of SUCCESS for Teens: Real Teens Talk about Using the Slight Edge. ( offers free downloads of the e-book, facilitator’s guide and audio to qualifying public schools, churches and nonprofit youth-development programs.)

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Your brain has both conscious and unconscious functions, and it’s important to understand the difference.

Related: What Successful People Know About the Mind That You Don’t

Your conscious brain is the part that does the “thinking.” It focuses intensely on one thing at a time, like a flashlight beam scanning a dark room. The conscious brain is incredibly powerful at what it does, but its scope is very limited. For example, you can’t remember more than a few numbers in your head at one time. Prove this to yourself: Open the phone book, read three phone numbers at random, close the book, and see if you can remember even one of them.

But your subconscious? It can remember lots of information at the same time! If your conscious brain is like a flashpoint, shining on one object at a time, your subconscious brain is like a floodlight that lights up everything at once—but only on a subconscious level (which means you’re not aware of it).

Your conscious brain is easily distracted. The average person loses focus six to 10 times per minute. How often does your subconscious lose focus? Try never.

That’s the key that most people don’t realize. We think of our conscious functions—our will, our conscious decisions, our conscious thoughts—as what is really “us,” and our subconscious as something that’s going on under the surface and not so important. The truth is, the subconscious runs virtually everything.

And that’s why some people end up in negative situations or living the life they don’t want. They say to themselves, “How did I get here?!” They got there on automatic pilot—their actions programmed them into the life they ended up with. They weren’t conscious of their choices.

So, how do you program your life? How do you help your subconscious make the right choices and decisions? In the same way you learned to walk or tie your shoes or skateboard: by taking small, positive steps over and over, until your actions are handed off to your subconscious. Then you can take those steps without thinking.

Because at that point, they’ve become a habit.

Related: 6 Ways to Make Better Decisions

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To download the SUCCESS for Teens e-book, learn about the program, share your story about it or make a contribution, visit Leaders, participants and donors can request a profile in SUCCESS by emailing This article originally appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

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