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  • Dan Connors

Subliminal - An entire world that both saves us and deceives us

Updated: Jun 11, 2022

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior Leonard Mlodinow 2012

Look at the tasty photo above. In addition to selling you chicken, there is another message hidden cleverly. If you look closely at the lettuce, you see a dollar bill there plain as day. What's up with that? It turns out that advertisers are able to sneak things like this into advertisements without our knowledge to tap into a vast underground system of awareness that lies below the surface of our conscious minds.

In college I read a book called Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Bryan Key that detailed how advertisers, especially cigarette and liquor advertisers were using images of sex and death to influence potential customers and mess with their minds. It is scary stuff. Things have evolved today and there isn't as much talk about subliminal ads, many of which have been replaced by double entendres- sneaky messages that wink at us to find the naughty hidden meaning behind their message. But one has to believe that subliminal messages are still in use today, albeit in a much more sophisticated form.

Leonard Mlodinow takes a fascinating look at the world of subliminal and unconscious thought with his book, Subliminal. Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist at Cal Tech and writer, and has worked with the likes of Stephen Hawking and Deepak Chopra. He obviously knows his stuff. What he presents here is a a brief, accessible, look at the hidden world of the brain and how it affects our conscious selves.

We are exposed to 11 million bits of information every second. At best, our brains can process 16-50 of those bits, which leaves a huge gap of information that flies right past us. Our conscious brain takes the visual, auditory, and other information and tries to respond to it. There is a second brain system- the unconscious- that operates below the surface to deal with this remaining overflow. This is where all the mental shortcuts, cognitive biases, rules of thumb, and blind spots try to help us make sense of things by sifting things down to their essence.

What we experience as "reality" is anything but real. It's a mental model, a construct, that works to keep us alive and functioning, and it is one of the most powerful things about humans that makes us the dominant species on earth. It is this mental model that enables us to go to the moon, invent vaccines, and build economies. But the weaknesses in our models also allow such undesirable things as racism, sexism, false memories, and blinding overconfidence that we know more than we actually do. There are many gaps in our models that our brains try their best to fill in with guesses, and that's where the problems start.

Mlodinow looks at a variety of psychological studies that show how our subconscious both serves and blinds us, and the real-life examples are very instructive and fascinating. Here is a brief summary of some of his points from studies.

- Our memories are faulty and unreliable, especially when it comes to small details. Evolutionarily, our memories are built to get the main idea, or gist, out of our experiences so that we can use that information later on. Details are tossed aside, which is why witness testimonies are notoriously unreliable.

- Our subconscious is pre-wired to prefer social groups versus being alone. We rely on non-verbal communication, tone of voice, and facial expressions to read people and build relationships, with much of that activity done below the conscious level.

- Good looks matter when judging leaders, touching someone for a split second activates subliminal signals for them to like you, and women are attracted to men that have lower voices. This is all ruled by subliminal systems we don't control consciously.

- There is a test called the Implicit Association Test, (IAT), that measures our unconscious associations between things that we claim not to associate. No matter how much we protest that we aren't racist, sexist, or ageist, this test shows that we all are.

- We misjudge our feelings and emotions sometimes. Our brain uses physical cues from our body plus social and emotional context to figure out things like sexual attraction or fear. Again, this is all done unconsciously.

- In group bias is a persistent, depressing trait of the subconscious. In experiments, people preferred to punish out-groups more often, even if that meant that they themselves would suffer. This is the root of racism and hate throughout the world. We'd rather see those we judge to be beneath us fall further, than to lift everybody up and make things better for all. This us vs them dynamic is manipulated by politicians the world over, even though we don't want to acknowledge it consciously.

As humans, we all put on a fake persona to some degree, hoping that the world doesn't figure us out. There's a name for it- imposter syndrome. We secretly doubt ourselves and subconsciously over-estimate our abilities to compensate. The above average effect is a fascinating bias where almost everybody judges themselves to be in the top half or top 10% of just about everything. We have to get up every day to face a somewhat unforgiving world, and we armor ourselves with overconfidence to make it through the day.

We can look at the world as scientists, starting with the evidence and going slowly towards a theory, or we can look at the world as lawyers, starting with a verdict and working backwards to twist all the information to a desired conclusion. Most of us act as lawyers, with our subconscious our chief aid in making reality bend to our assumptions. We curate our information intake to align with what we already believe, which works much of the time but can hold us back from important realizations as things change. Sometimes reality is unpleasant and full of bad news, and that can be hard for inner lawyers to deal with, but inner scientists would dive in and test new theories.

This book is a nice introduction to the world of subliminal thought, though I wish it would have covered more things like the advertising world referenced above. (Key's book is still the best in that regard.) We need our subconscious to help make sense of the 11 million bits of information hurling at us, or we would die. And we need the false confidence and optimism our subconscious provides us so that we can have the courage to tackle the difficult and challenging things in life. (If we always knew the odds ahead of time, we'd probably give up trying)

We just need to stay aware that the subconscious part of our brain is there, and not always accurate. It is this awareness that gives us the power to know when to listen to it, and when to ignore its well-meaning nonsense.

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The above information is provided courtesy of the author who has done his best to be factual. You are still responsible for interpreting and checking those facts elsewhere, and I make no representations that I am a mental health expert beyond what I presented. Thank you.

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