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The Dual Processing Theory of Consciousness

Instructor: Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 15 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

The mind is a miraculous machine - its ability to process information is astounding. This lesson reviews implicit and explicit processing: the dual processing theory of consciousness.

Dual Processing

Have you ever experienced a situation where you had an initial gut reaction to something, but then stopped yourself from responding because you noticed that things weren't as they seemed?

Imagine you were sitting in a coffee shop and you glanced over at the counter. Suddenly, the barista jumped and yelped. You immediately started to get up to help the woman with her burn, only to realize that she had just seen a friend and was squealing in joy, not pain. You had two responses to the same information: one automatic and one more thought out.

These are the two aspects of dual processing theory, which argues that our consciousness actually includes two layers. The implicit portion of the dual process theory is the part of your mind that reacts/responds automatically, or without conscious thought. The aspect of your consciousness that is truly conscious and controlled is the explicit, or conscious, process. These two processes occur simultaneously and independently.

Come with me as we discover the amazing work our mind can do with, and without, our awareness. Throughout this lesson, we will discuss the mind's ability to process information. This refers to the act of using available information to make decisions about the immediate environment.

Implicit Processing

Implicit processing can be thought of as the internal processing that happens outside of awareness. You can guess that it happens really quickly, since we are not even aware that our minds are using information around us to decide on near future responses. Often, our initial response is something called the fight or flight response, because our mind uses the information available to make a snap decision to either stay in the environment or depart the environment. The standard for this decision tends to be safety (i.e., fight off the danger or run from it).

In the previous example, you immediately started to rise from your table to go to the barista. You were probably already considering (even consciously) how to assist, what medical intervention is right for burns and what other possible injuries she may have as you stood to help. This is an implicit response because the initial decision to help happened quickly, and without any conscious awareness. In the fight or flight decision, your mind concluded that the situation was not dangerous to you and that you were likely to be successful in helping; thus the implicit decision to move toward the environmental incident occurred.

If there had been multiple loud popping noises prior to the barista yelling, or if this café was in an area known for gun fire incidents, your implicit response (that fight or flight decision) may have been to run for your life.

The interesting thing about implicit processing is that it is often wrong. Information is processed so quickly that sometimes it is taken out of context. The standard of safety in the decision making process tends to encourage us to respond as if there is danger, when in fact there is none. We've all heard the old adage, 'Better to err on the side of safety.' Our implicit processing will err on the side of safety when processing information so quickly we are not even aware it is happening.

Because implicit processing happens without our awareness, it's also fueled by our own personal biases and life experiences. A person who has never been in a war zone does not duck for cover when they hear a loud bang, but a person fresh from combat duty will likely respond as if being shot at if a car backfires nearby. What we have lived through helps form our unconscious responses.

Explicit Processing

You can think of explicit processing as decision making that is external in the sense that you are aware of it happening and control the process through logic. When you are deciding on whether to ride the bus to work or drive your car, you consciously consider all the pros and cons of each option and make your decision based on the logical conclusion of your assessment.

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