What is consciousness? How does subconscious Morse decoding work? Understanding head copy needs a deep dive.
In our last article, we discussed our conscious ability to understand Morse code at lower speeds using an analytical process which discriminated the timing of dots and dashes into symbols and characters. We found this can work well for starting out, and up to maybe 25-30 WPM. Conscious decoding has its limits.
Take a step back. Your brain devotes about 5% of its resources to consciousness. The remaining 95% does background processing – as subconscious or unconscious activities. Part of your background processing supports things like breathing. Other parts process the senses and prepare information to be raised into consciousness. For example, the startle response kicks in at 5 milliseconds subconsciously, but may take 200-500 ms to enter consciousness.
Conscious thought is simply what you are paying attention to at any moment. Consciousness is your awareness of information being escalated by the rest of your brain.
Conscious decoding of slow Morse code lets you pull patterns from your subconscious memories. You apply these templates mechanically to translate sounds (or other sensory cues) into the symbols and letters.
If you want to understand CW at 30+ WPM, you need to let subconscious Morse decoding take over. After all, nearly all of your brain activity is really fast and smart – you just don’t notice it. (Remember, consciousness is attention.)
Subconscious Morse Decoding – How It Works
Think of Morse code as a habit. The more you practice and create new patterns in your brain, you also create habits which act subconsciously. (Think of driving your car.) Beyond 30 WPM, you must forget conscious code analysis and just let your subconscious take over.
As your mind works on Morse below the surface, it will check your input senses against habits and patterns stored in your memories. At some point, you reach what science calls “a threshold of evidence accumulation”. Your brain says “Aha! That word is PARIS” and escalates that information to your conscious attention.
The same idea is boosted by the context of a QSO. Patterns about QTH, Name, RST, etc. easily flag details into your awareness even if you cannot confidentially detect the individual bits.
So, in simple terms: You learn Morse slowly at first, using low-level decoding. As you practice, speed increases and you store patterns of characters and words. As you pass 30 WPM, you either let your subconscious mind do the work, or, unfortunately, give up.
As a final word, the more you learn Morse at higher speeds, the more your subconscious brain builds new complex pathways to make it easier for you to enjoy CW. Science calls this “adaptive neuroplasticity”.
I’m strictly a CW op and am comfortable at 30WPM. When I was really active, I could get up into the 50WPM area with W9FAM (SK) and others. To do that I would get into subconscious mode by closing my eyes and shutting out any external distractions & just let the code enter my ears and let my brain decode it. No writing. Perhaps a one word note on paper to remind me of something, but even that distraction could cause me to miss a word or two. It definitely helps if one knows the topic. And most assuredly a strong signal is needed with no QRM, QRN or QSB. I recently was operating as TI7/W2BEE & joined in the 2023 ARRL CW Test. It’s great for non-USA stations because DX is in demand. I learned that my skills had deteriorated due to a lack of use. When I got back home I decided to operate in more contests to get my brain back in “rapid CW mode” and computer logging. No professional medical consultation, but my brief experience in TI7 showed me that contesting was good for my brain. 73, Greg W2BEE