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BOOK REVIEW: Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your BehaviorSubliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If one tries to detect lies using conscious analysis, one stinks—wrong as often as right. However, if one distracts the conscious mind so as to produce what is often called a hunch, one performs much better. This is because not only is there is another mind below one’s conscious mind, but it’s better at many tasks than is our conscious mind. This will be hard news for many readers to take because they are reading and comprehending it with their conscious minds—a conscious mind that thinks it’s better than sliced bread when it comes to things that are awesome. Mlodinow’s book is about the many aspects of this mind that we generally don’t have access to (unless one is skilled in lucid dreaming or is conscientious in the hypnagogic state [on the edge of falling into sleep]—topics the author doesn’t get into.) It’s about why humans evolved to have subliminal mental operations, how they benefit us, and how they sometimes fail us.

Ideas about what the unconscious mind is have varied over the ages, though its existence has long been recognized. Ancient traditions often attributed the unconscious to the supernatural causes like a collective consciousness. Mlodinow begins his book with a chapter entitled “The New Unconscious,” presumably to distinguish it from Freud’s conception and to emphasize the wellspring of results that have come about during the last couple decades of brain research.

The second chapter deals with our sensory experience and the role that unconscious elements play in shaping it. People tend to overestimate the extent to which they experience a high-fidelity and high-resolution display of the world, and underestimate the degree to which the brain fudges to make it seem so. Facial recognition, which is one of the most fundamental of human skills, is a centerpiece of the discussion.

The third chapter discusses memory. Again, the underlying theme is how the brain can make mistakes as it tries to cobble together a story with a combination of information we have, blank spots, and guesses. One may be surprised to discover how poorly one is able to describe the details of things that one sees—if not every day—at least thousands of times in a lifetime.

The next chapter examines how our unconscious plays into our social life. The concept of a “theory of the mind” is at the center of this discussion—and it may not be what you think. Theory of the mind is the ability to figuratively see the world through the eyes of others, to understand justifications for what others have done, and to anticipate what they will do in the future. We also learn about oxytocin and vasopressin, the so-called “love hormones,” whose presence corresponds to our fond feelings for others.

Chapter five continues the discussion of the previous chapter along a specific line of discussion—that of reading people. We are wired to make sense of the facial expressions and non-verbal behavior of other people and this chapter explores that ability as well as its limits. Chapter six describes how we draw quick and unconscious conclusions about people on the basis of how they look, feel, and smell. By way of example, I’ll offer a case from another book I read recently (I don’t believe Mlodinow refers to this particular study, but I may be mistaken) in which a mock interview was set up. Right before their interview meetings, some of the individuals were asked to hold either a hot or cold coffee (or nothing.) It turned out that whether a subject had held a beverage (and what kind) had a profound influence on the interviewers’ feelings about that subject (i.e. the degree to which an interview subject was seen as a cold or warm person had as much to do with an unconscious evaluation of a handshake as it did the conscious interpretation of the individual’s personality.)

The next couple chapters (7 and 8) explain the crucial role of the unconscious mind in categorizing things and people, how that skill has been essential to our survival, and how this sometimes gets us in trouble (e.g. racism.) Chapter 9 delves into the role of emotions, and what the author calls “emotional illusions.” Sometimes we make a decision because we have an emotional experience associated with the decision scenario, but being in an emotional state that is unrelated to the decision still affects the decision.

The last chapter is about how our attachment to self can influence decisions. You’ve probably read about studies showing 90+ percent of the population think they are better than average at something. Also, you may remember from Psychology class a discussion of the self-serving bias (attributing positive outcomes to one’s awesomeness, while blaming external forces for negative outcomes.) This chapter deals in these types of phenomena.

The book has a few relevant black-and-white graphics as well as annotations / citations.

I found this book to be interesting, but not unlike many books that are presently available. I thought it could have ventured into more novel and interesting territory. There are actually a number of books that focus on how we are wired, and the glitches that result. Sometimes our evolutionary programming served us well under hunter-gatherer conditions, and sometimes it still serves us most of the time–but fails us on occasion. There are a number of books that discuss this–often using the same or similar examples as Mlodinow (e.g. consider Eagleman’s “Incognito.”) However, the ways in which the unconscious mind can be interacted with, such as lucid dreaming, are now being scientifically studied, and so there exists a capacity to move beyond the blooper reels of the mind—though that topic is certainly a popular subject, both of scholarly study and pop science books such as this one.

If you are looking for a book on how the unconscious mind both benefits and deceives us, this is a good choice. Mlodinow has a sense of humor and writes complex subjects in an easy to comprehend fashion. However, if you’ve read up on the subject, you might not find much new here.

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2 Comments

  1. seagullsea says:

    Interesting. Is the writer Russian?i dont know if you are aware (excuse the pun)but the Soviets had a huge case AGAINST psychoanalysis which might explain the more cognitive scientific approach focusing on measurable results.
    I have been reading “surviving”by Bruno Bettelheim.a post Freudian .it is a book of essays. I never managed to read e Freud too long but i do like the creative writing of psychoanalysts who quote writers and take ideas from mythologies ,poetry,and art.
    The times are achanging,we can no longer assume a shared basic cultural basket ,the classics not a common knowledge but i do like the longer more winding road towards the mystery of the mind.the book you mention seems very pavolvian;measuring results but it is very interesting. Have you read”thinking fast and slow?”by Kahanman.there is a whole psychology of decision making. It is applicble to business marketing etc.
    But sometimes i prefer not to know..you know what i mean…
    Still thank you for sharing. What year is the book from ?

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