In Man and His Symbols Carl Jung wrote, “ThereARE certain events of which we have not consciously taken note; they have remained, so to speak, below the threshold of consciousness. They have happened, but they have been absorbed subliminally.”
Jung, Freud and others introduced the West to the mysteries of the unconscious as best they could, but today new technologies are providing a much clearer view of the part of the brain that operates below the level of normal consciousness. These technologies, physicist Leonard Mlodinow says, “have made it possible, for the first time in human history, for there to be an actual science of the unconscious.” Just as quantum physics provided a much finer grained understanding of the universe than Newtonian physics, so our theories about how social relations work are undergoing a revolution. This is thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can detect activity in the brain’s different structures by seeing the smallCHANGES in blood flow in its parts. The technology has become so advanced that computers can use the data coming from our brain to reconstruct an image of what we are looking at. The link between how the brain operates, and how it creates our social relations and who we are, led to a new area called ‘social neuroscience’, which only began in 2001.
For Jung, the study of dreams, mythology, art and symbols were aWINDOW into the ‘collective unconscious’ of humankind. Subliminal (the word comes from the Latin for ‘below threshold’) charts the re-emergence of the unconscious mind as a serious area of study; for Mlodinow, the unconscious mind is not a spiritual reality but has a firm physiological basis, developed in the brain for survival long before civilization emerged. Here we look at a few of the findings he presents to support this view.
Have you ever thought how much your unconscious mind affects things like what house you should buy, who you should employ as your babysitter, or whether this person will make a good long term partner?
Mlodinow talks of his mother, who often had extreme reactions to things. When he was in college, Leonard would call his mother every Thursday at 8 pm, but one week he forgot to, and went on a date instead. After it got to 9 pm with no phone call, she began accusing his roommate of hiding the fact that had been taken to hospital, and as the evening went by, accused the roommate of covering up her son’s death.
Why this reaction? Mlodinow’s mother had been part of a loving middle class family in Poland, until things took a tragic turn. First, over the course of a year her mother died a painful death from abdominal cancer, then she came home one day to find her father had been taken by the Nazis. She and her sister were put on a train to a slaveLABOR camp, and her sister did not survive. After being liberated she emigrated to the United States and started again, creating a safe, middle class life in Chicago. But her early trauma would from time to time find expression. Mlodinow sometimes suggested she see a psychologist about it, because it had been shown that such ‘talking treatment’ had been useful in some trauma cases.
Some years later, Mlodinow reports on the evidence that traumaCHANGES the actual physiology of the brain. Experiences like those of his mother actually bring on alterations in parts of the brain thatARE stress sensitive (see Spinelli et al, Archives of General Psychiatry, 2009). Even if her conscious mind hadWANTED to, Mlodinow’s mother could not avoid having the reactions she did; it was physiologically part of her.
The new unconscious
The common view is that Freud ‘invented’ the unconscious mind, but in fact the early psychology experimenters and thinkers including Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Wilhelm Wundt and William Carpenter were the ones who began to develop a scientific methodology that could show how the unconscious mind worked. It became clear to them that there were two systems of brain operation. The unconscious had developed first in evolutionary terms, and for a very good reason: it keeps us alive. As well as regulating all the basic physical functions, it provides us with instant reactions to survive in the face of stimuli or threats. All vertebrateANIMALS of course have this level of brain functioning, but the conscious reasoning mind is very much an optional extra which evolved later.
Today, neurological researchers use the term the ‘new unconscious’ in place of the unconscious mind that Freud wrote about. Freud actually began as a brain scientist, but there was only so much you could find out about the physiology of the brain with the technology of his day, so he focused on clinical practice. Though he was absolutely right in asserting that much of the behavior of his patients was generated by mental processes they were not conscious of, simply talking with them was always going to yield subjective and unreliable information about what was actually going on. Freud was as a result, Mlodinow says, “mainly off the mark.”
Freud perceived many actions as being the result of fearful repression of some kind, but today’s researchers simply note that an action derives from the fact that some parts of the mind are inaccessible to the conscious brain. It is the architecture of the brain itself that is determining outcomes, not a repressed intention. This means that many actions and choices must be seen as a normal result of the brain’s functioning, developed over millennia to aid social functioning and physical survival. Indeed, Mlodinow sees the unconscious part of the mind as a gift of evolution. While the conscious mind might have enabled us to build civilizations, he says, “for avoiding snake bites or cars that swerve into your path or people who may mean to harm you, only the speed and efficiency of the unconscious can save you.” For us to perform at our optimal and efficient best, a lot of functions relating to seeing, remembering, learning and judging need to be kept out of conscious awareness. Indeed, there is so much information coming to the brain every second that if the conscious mind had to deal with it all, “your brain would freeze like an overtaxed computer”, Mlodinow says. Instead, we are aware of only about five percent of our brain’s activity. Ninety-five percent happens outside our awareness.
Who or what makes our choices?
Why do we make the choices we do? Often the stated reason is not the real one. We tell people we took a job because of the challenge, when all along it was the prestige that attracted us. We choose a specialist for her skills and experience, when in reality we like the fact that she is a good listener. Mlodinow reminds us of John T Jones’ research from 2004 on how people with the same surnames tend to marry each other at 3-4 times the rate that they marry a person with a different surname. What can account for this? WeARE naturally biased towards traits that are like our own; the familiarity is comforting. This even extends to apparently meaningless traits such as a last name.
For a long time, economists have assumed people were rational actors that made deliberate decisions on how to allocate and spend resources based on their self-interest. But a new breed of economists such as Caltech’s Antonio Rangel have turned up some fascinating research. Rangel found that people would pay 40 to 60 per cent more for an item of junk food if they could see it in front of them, rather than seeing a picture of it on a screen. However, if the food is placed behind plexiglass, the price premium is lost. Does this sound rational? There is obviously a lot more going on with our buying decisions that make apparently irrelevant things highly important. What’s more, Mlodinow notes, “when quizzed about the reasons for their decisions, the subjects proved completely unaware that thoseFACTORS had influenced them.”
In another Rangel study, subjects were given three different bottles of detergent to take home and use, and then asked to come back and say which one worked best and why. When they returned, they reported the various merits of each bottle and ranked them. What they didn’t know was that in fact the detergent was the same in each; only the packaging was different. This didn’t stop the subjects ranking the bottle in blue plastic with splashes of yellow far above the bottles which were only blue or only yellow.
Mlodinow refers to some other interesting studies:
· People were found to purchase French or German wine depending on whether French or German music was playing in the background. But only one inSEVEN people admitted the music had influenced their choices.
· Customers were considerably more generous in their tips to waitresses at a Chicago restaurant when the sun was shining that day, compared to when it was not.
· Whether names of companiesARE easily pronounceable affects how they perform when initially listed onSTOCKexchanges. Companies or their ticker symbols that are easy to pronounce do better than those which are not, at least in the first year of flotation.
· A couple of studies of stock prices and Wall Street weather have found a definite correlation between sunny days and bullish activity. “According to their statistics”, Mlodinow notes, “if a year had included only perfectly sunny days, the market return of the New YorkSTOCK EXCHANGE would have averaged 24.8 percent, while if a year had been made up of completely overcast days, it would have averaged only 8.7 percent.”
We think that important financial decisions, particularly those we make on behalf of others, are arrived at after deliberate analysis. Studies such as these suggest that subjective factors are at least as important, sometimes to a shocking degree.
One more Rangel experiment is worth noting. He did a taste test with subjects involving wines of varying price, and people invariably preferred the taste of the more expensive wine, even though the two wines tested were in fact both of the expensive type. While the wine tasting was going on, the brains of Rangel’s subjects were being scanned by an fMRI machine, which showed that wine price affected a part of the brain called the orbito-frontal cortex, which is often linked to pleasure. The implication is that although there was no difference in the two wines, the difference in tasteswasREAL. This is so, MlodinowWRITES, because “Our brains are not simply recording a taste or other experience, they are creating it.” He puts it another way: “Though you are unaware of it, when you run cool wine over your tongue, you don’t just taste its chemical composition: you also taste its price.”
How hunches work
Mlodinow describes the strange case of ‘TN’. A double-stroke had knocked out this middle-aged man’s his ability to see – he couldn’t even detect shapes on a white background. And yet, when presented with pictures of people’s faces he could say two times out of three if the faces were happy or sad. Experimenters also got him to walk down a cluttered hallway, and despite being totally ‘blind’, TN successfully moved around a garbage can, several boxes and other things. What can we make of this? In the first instance, it was clear that his brain’s fusiform face area (the part of the brain dedicated to face recognition) was still working, even if he was not conscious of it. And in the second instance, it showed that even if the conscious visual system in the brain has stopped functioning, the eyes are still operational and are feeding information to the unconscious. This is how the phenomenon of ‘blind sight’ works.
Mlodinow was once in the Golan Heights, walking along a road when he spotted an interesting looking bird in a field. As a keen birdwatcher heWANTED to get closer. There was a sign on a fence around the field that said something, but his Hebrew wasn't good. Perhaps it said No Trespassing, he thought? But somehow it seemed different. Though he had a feeling he shouldn't climb the fence, he did so anyway. As he began walking towards the bird, he saw a local farmer coming down the road who was waving his arms madly; Mlodinow walked back to the fence to find out what all the fuss was about. It turned out the sign had said: Danger – Minefields. From this point on, Mlodinow always trusted his instincts – or to be more precise, trusted judgements delivered to him that his conscious mind had not properly processed. “We are all a bit like patient TN”, he writes, “blind to certain things, being advised by our unconscious to dodge to the left and right. That advice can often save us, if we are willing to open ourselves to the input.”
Reading and judging people
Mlodinow tells of a study in which a group of students were presented with pictures of faces. The pictures had already been tested as being neutral looking, but the students were told that certain people featured were ‘successful’ and that other people in the images were not. The students were then asked to show the pictures to another group of people and ask them which ones they thought were successful or failures, reading out a written script so that they would not influence the choices people made. But even with this neutral script, the nonverbal cues of the students hugely affected the choices people made. People tended to choose between pictures based on the subtle expectations of the students.
Mlodinow says that experiments such as these demonstrate that “whether or not we wish to, we communicate our expectations to others, and they oftenRESPOND by fulfilling those expectations.” In another well-known study by Rosenthal , it was shown that teachers’ expectations of children’s academic performance greatly affected their actual performance. Teachers were told that particular students had high intellectual potential, based on IQ scores, when in fact those students had only got average scores. At a later date, all the students who had been tested for IQ were tested again, with amazing findings. Normally, IQ scores in children fluctuate according to intellectual development or random variation, but of those children who had been identified (falsely) as ‘brilliant’, 80 per cent of them showed an IQ increase of at least 10 points, and twenty per cent of them had a tested IQ increase of at least 30 points, compared to only five per cent of the other children tested. Another finding was that teachers rated those students not labelled as special as also being less interested and curious, and unsurprisingly, those students only had average grades. “Labeling children as gifted”, Mlodinow notes, “had proved to be a powerful self-fulfilling prophecy”.
Deep voices, pretty faces
To the unconscious mind, how someone sounds is almost as important as how they look. For birds, voice is very important in mating and sex, and we retain part of the Stone Age importance of voice in reproduction. We still pick up a lot of cues about people from their voices.
People who only heard the presidential debate of 1960 on the radio judged Nixon the winner by two to one, particularly with his baritone voice compared to Kennedy’s higher-pitched Bostonian one. But people watching on television saw Kennedy as the convincing winner. Nixon had just come out of hospital with a knee infection, was tired and drawn and his television adviser didn’t think he needed makeup; Kennedy was tanned and fit, and had the full makeup treatment. Mlodinow cites various studies which show that how a political candidate looks is a huge factor in whether or not they win an election. What is decisive is not whether a candidate is judged better looking, but whether they appear more competent. In 2006, researchers had people make face evaluations of political candidates acrossAMERICA before elections. Based on this alone, they were able to predict with striking accuracy who would be the winners. Candidates judged more competent won an average of 70 per cent of the races.
Yet there is no link, in actuality, between how people look and the quality of their work or administration. Mlodinow gives the example of Charles Darwin, who almost missed his opportunity to go on the Beagle trip because the captain did not like the shape of his bulbous nose, believing it to be a sign of insufficient energy and determination. Darwin later said in his autobiography: “I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.”
We make judgements all the time based on superficial things, and yet these judgements can have a big effect on the job we get, who we choose as a spouse, babysitter or doctor, the politicians we put in power. Being aware of how the unconscious skews judgement is surely useful in coming to more correct judgements.
Categorization and prejudice
HUMANS use categorization of things to process information more easily. By having mental categories, we don’t have to reassess an object every time we see it. Any time we see a bear, for instance, we’ll probably have a ready-made reaction to run away from it. We don’t stand there looking at the bear to see if this one is friendly, even if another one killed our Uncle Bob. Similarly, we don’t analyse a certain configurement of wood and nails every time we see one to see if it is something we can sit on, we have a category called ‘chairs’, and the object either does fall into the category or it doesn't.
Yet this powerful ability to categorize means we can make the mistake of thinking that objects we put into a categoryARE more similar than they really are. Just because a group of people are wearing the same colored football scarf, for instance, we tend to think of them as a group and not as individuals. More worryingly, Mlodinow notes, is our tendency we think of people of a certain ethnicity, skin color or nationality as more similar than they in fact are. Mlodinow mentions the work of Henri Tajfel, who pioneered research on stereotyping and social categorization. He had been the victim of the latter as a Polish Jew living in France who spent time in Nazi concentration camps. Until the 1980s psychologists still saw prejudice as an intentional, conscious behavior, not the result of the brain’s unconscious propensity to categorize, but Tajfel’sBOOK Human Groups and Social Categories (1981) helped toCHANGEthinking. In 1998, three University of Washington researchers demonstrated conclusively that stereotyping is unconscious. Their ‘Implicit Association Test’ (IAT) is a measurement of the distance between what you say you believe, and your actual unconscious attitudes. For instance, the test routinely finds that 68 per cent of people have a bias for white people over black, 80 per cent favor young people over old, and 76 per cent have a bias for the able-bodies over the disabled – no matter what they say otherwise.
Obviously, such biases will have a big impact on the conclusions we reach and decisions we make. The evolutionary reason we are like this is so the brain can make quick judgements which can sometimes be a matter of life or death. We are a “machine for jumping to conclusions” as Daniel Kahneman put it, but the good news is that by being aware of our unconscious assumptions we can counteract them by acting according to principles and ideals, not assumptions. The point about the IAT, Mlodinow notes, is that people’s associations reflect stereotyping present in the culture. We tend to soak up these easy categorizations as our default, whether we are aware of it or not. Jurors tend to see defendants as less guilty if they are better looking, but this happens only with relatively minor offences. With serious cases such as murder, when more deliberate sifting of the evidence is required, this unconscious bias tends to disappear, and people are judged according to the crime, not the appearance or other characteristics.
While the rational, thinking part of our brains is much bigger than other mammals, our automatic or unconscious mindsARE remarkably similar to those of a rabbit or a chimpanzee. Yes, our behavior is much more complex, but the new thinking embodied in Subliminal is that we are “hardwired to certain unconscious social behaviors, a remnant of ourANIMAL past.” This is a big break from the 1970s and 1980s when orthodox academic psychology assumed all human choices were conscious and deliberate. Indeed, the idea that much of our existence is shaped by mental forces of which we are not aware seems to go against our idea of ourselves as ‘captains of our soul’ and the existence of free will. Yet brain scanning technology and the range of new studies looking at the unconscious only appear to confirm this uncomfortable truth.
Mlodinow suggests that we should not fear greater study of the unconscious mind – indeed, if we are to gain more control over our actions and understand social relations better, it is absolutely necessary. He again quotes Jung: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct yourLIFE and you will call it fate.”
There is a huge amount of information in this book that is fascinating in its own right, covering vision, memory, and social groupings. Mlodinow leans on a lot of psychological research, particularly that of Caltech’s Antonio Rangel and Christof Koch, but he references hundreds of studies, all of which are fascinating and worthy of separate exploration. As a physicist Mlodinow has worked with Stephen Hawking, and he brings the rigor of his original profession to what has always been a murky area. Indeed, Mlodinow notes that “the idea that the unconscious is important to our behavior was, until recently, shunned as pop psychology”. Where once we had only Freud or Jung to instruct us in this area, or popular but non-scientificBOOKS like The Power of Your Subconscious Mind (Joseph Murphy), now Subliminaland similar titles are lighting the path ahead.
Born in 1954 in Chicago, Mlodinow is the child of Polish immigrants who only just escaped the Holocaust. During high school he became interested in physics, and enrolled at Brandeis University where he graduated with aMASTERS in physics in 1976. In 1981 he obtained a doctorate in theoretical physics from University of California, Berkeley, before becoming a Research Fellow at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), followed by a stint in Germany at the Max-Planck-Institute for Physics in Munich.
In a careerCHANGE, Mlodinow moved to Los Angeles in 1985 to become a screenwriter. After several months without work he sold a script and began toWRITE for popular television series such as Hunter, MacGyver and StarTrek: the Next Generation. In the 1990s he moved into computer gaming, becoming a producer and designer of several games, and between 1997 and 2002 worked at Scholastic, the New York publisher, producing math education and otherSOFTWARE for children.
In 2005 Mlodinow helped Stephen Hawking write A Briefer History of Time, and in 2010 co-authored The Grand Designwith him. OtherBOOKS include Euclid’s Widow (2001), Feynman’s Rainbow: a search for beauty in physics and in life(2003), The Drunkard’s Walk: the story of randomness and its role in our lives, and with Deepak Chopra, War of the Worldviews:SCIENCE vs. spirituality (2011).