What Is Unconscious Perception?

Laura M. Sands

Unconscious perception is a term used to describe mental impressions that occur beneath the threshold of conscious awareness. Evidence of this type of perception may affect or include sensory, auditory and visual perception. Unconscious perception is the area of consciousness where certain habits may form and is one of many theories of perception.

Children with normal perception immediately pull their hand away from a hot surface without thinking about it, but a child with a sensory processing disorder may suffer burns.
Children with normal perception immediately pull their hand away from a hot surface without thinking about it, but a child with a sensory processing disorder may suffer burns.

Also referred to as subconscious thought, perception that is unconscious is often vulnerable to subliminal suggestions. For example, on a hot summer day an individual may see a fleeting photograph of a frozen dessert and, without even consciously paying attention to the photo, develop an increasing desire to go out and purchase that dessert. Even if the conscious mind may attempt to resist that dessert by way of reasoning that it contains too many calories or too much sugar, an unconscious type of perception has taken root and caused that desire to occur.

Other types of perception can also play a part in unconscious impressions. For instance, a certain auditory perception or sensory perception may cause unconscious reactions to stimuli. Researchers who study the psychology of perception have found that of patients rendered unconscious by anesthesia during surgical processes, some can recall events that occurred during surgery. Since the patient’s mind was placed in a controlled unconscious state during such procedures, it has been concluded that a person’s unconscious perception is responsible for such memories.

Research has been conducted to determine whether certain habits are formed or exist at levels of this type of perception. For instance, habits like immediately noticing differences between people based on gender or race are automatic for some individuals in that they do so without even consciously noticing their thought patterns. In some instances, an unconscious perception like this may even influence how people interact with one another. Only through repeated conscious effort can a habit like this be changed if a person desires to do so.

Though most published research suggests that unconscious perception is inferior to conscious perception, not all researchers believe this to be true. Some believe that unconscious thought patterns are in many ways equal in strength and accuracy to those that occur consciously. There are even some who believe that certain unconscious suggestions may even overpower conscious choice although more research is needed to determine whether or not this is actually true. As researchers continue to explore the effects of unconscious perception, questions and debate about how to go about accurately measuring it also persist.

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Discussion Comments


@Kristee – I don't really think it would be terrifying. As long as you were totally numb to everything that was going on, you probably wouldn't even think about it until after you woke up.

Just because you could remember seeing surgeons around you doesn't mean that you would be traumatized for life. Now, if you could feel everything that was happening during surgery, that would be a different story.


I can relate to wanting ice cream on a hot day after seeing an ad. However, I'm usually aware of where this desire came from.

If I am up late at night and I see an ad for a fast food restaurant that is open late, my mind immediately starts working in that vein. I think, “Hey, it's late right now, and those fries are looking really good!”

Then, part of me says it's too late to go out because I'm already in my pajamas. The other part of me tries to talk me into it, because the food hit the spot in my mind.

Does the fact that I know where the desire for the food originated make it a conscious perception instead of an unconscious one? It still started with a subliminal suggestion.


I think that recalling things that happened during a surgery would be one kind of unconscious surgery that I would not want! Even if you weren't feeling any pain at the time, do you really want to recall seeing a bunch of surgeons standing over you and talking about your insides?


I am a beginner in this topic, but thanks for making the topic so appealing.

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