Evidence for Unconscious Mental Problem Solving

When setting out to write my book on tacit knowledge, I aimed attention upon current research in neuroscience to uncover evidence that Polanyi was correct in his description of tacit knowledge as a subconscious mental processing activity. Since the publication of my book, I discovered a 2013 study by Creswell, Bursley, and Satpute (Carnegie Mellon and Northeastern Universities) that was hailed as the first neural evidence for unconscious thought processing at work. The investigators offered participants information about desirable and undesirable characteristics of four hypothetical automobiles. One of the cars was by design obviously better, one was worse, and the other two merely ok. Experimental conditions offered some participants an opportunity to consciously evaluate the characteristics of the vehicles and rate them. Others were asked for an immediate ranking (no time to consciously think about it) and the third group had to complete a demanding cognitive task (using up their conscious awareness) before ranking the vehicles. The best rankings curiously came from the group that was mentally tied up with the competing conscious task. Apparently, while engrossed in that task, an unconscious mental processing was underway that led to the best ranking in comparison to those who offered an immediate ranking or those who consciously thought about the rankings. To prove the existence of this unconscious processing system in the brain, all subjects were hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging device. Brain activation was monitored during the trials. The investigators were able to demonstrate that certain brain regions associated with the rating task were activated during the competing cognitive task hence offering those participants access to portions of their brains that performed the ratings unconsciously. Skeptics for the presence of unconscious mental operations are gradually losing the battle!