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

Amazon page


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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking w/ Leonard Mlodinow

The Grand DesignThe Grand Design by Stephen Hawking
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


Why is there a universe, and why is it as it is? This is the question addressed by “The Grand Design.” These questions have been taken up in many ways by many disciplines in addition to science (e.g. mythology, religion, and philosophy), and science, itself, is continuously attempting to hone in on an explanation that is consistent with observed reality. Hawking and Mlodinow suggest that, for now, the leading contender is M-theory.

The authors advocate for M-theory, but also for the [relevant] notion of model-dependent realism. M-theory predicts that quantum fluctuations are causing a continuous spawning of new universes—each with its own laws of nature (or lack thereof.) Most of the bubble universes in this frothy multiverse don’t have staying power, but a few—like ours—are governed by laws that not only allow them to blossom, but also to spawn life. Besides the existence of a multiverse of universes governed by differing sets of laws, there are some other predictions of the M-theory model that remain to be proven. These include the existence of eleven dimensions, most of which are curled up and must be curled up in a certain way according to a set of laws and conditions. The theory also predicts that there will exist “objects” of various dimensionality up to nine. [Whether we will ever be able to test any of these predictions remains unclear.]

What’s this model-dependent realism bit? This is the idea that what we know of reality exists through models that connect observations to a set of rules. Within the limited space for which we have observations, there is no requirement that there be a solitary model or mapping between rules and observations. Because of this, there may be multiple theories. Physics has been long looking for a grand unified theory (GUT) or a Theory of Everything (TOE) that explains all the laws of the universe in one fell swoop. Hawking suggests that such a solitary theory may not be found given our limitations, and that we may have to exploit different theories for different situations. This belief is important because M-theory isn’t a unified theory but a grouping of theories that each work well in certain domains. Needless to say, this isn’t a particularly satisfying notion for the many physicists who are hoping for a more satisfying level of elegance.

The book consists of eight chapters. The first, entitled “The Mystery of Being,” is a brief description of the central question and an outline of why M-theory is proposed as the answer. Chapter two gives an overview of our evolving understanding of the laws that govern the universe, and sets up the important idea that the configuration of the universe is contingent upon the form of the laws governing it. The third chapter is where the authors argue for model-dependent realism, while discussing the arguments of realists and anti-realists as well. Chapter four describes alternate histories and the idea that the probability of an observation is dependent upon all possible histories that could have led to said observations. This bit of quantum strangeness is crucial to reconciling the central question. The next chapter describes the forces seen in our universe and considers attempts to unify the four forces (i.e. gravity, electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force) in a single theory that explains it all—a ToE. Chapter six discusses our universe with particular respect to its steady expansion that has allowed galaxies and solar systems to form. Chapter seven goes further, exploring the nature of a universe that could support the development and evolution of life. There are a wide variety of precise conditions needed to produce intelligent life. We live in a narrow band with respect to our distance from our star in which our type of life could be created. If the orbit of the sun was more elliptical or our axis wasn’t stabilized by a moon, we couldn’t be—and those features require laws that support them. The authors also examine how the chemistry of our universe is conducive to the development of complex life. The final chapter uses a discussion of a primitive computer game called “the game of life” to show how a model shapes reality as we know it. This grid-based game has only a few rules, and yet if there are more than a few pixels at the beginning, it becomes impossible for us to predict an outcome. With the complexity we see in our universe, this situation is vastly greater.

The book contains many graphics, mostly color, to clarify ideas that are difficult to comprehend via verbal description, or sometimes just to add levity. The only ancillary matter is a brief glossary of terms that come up in the book. There are no notes and no bibliography.

I found this book to be thought-provoking. However, I don’t know why it had the feel of a sales pitch. It repeats the theme of “M-theory is the best game in town” ad nauseam. This repetition draws attention to itself because the book fails to directly challenge those who critique M-theory in any depth or detail. It also fails to take on the question of how it is that M-theory might be taken from a purely theoretical construct to one that can be tested. (It makes falsifiable claims, but does that matter if we may never have a capacity to test those claims?) Those aspects wouldn’t be necessary if the book wasn’t making a pitch. [It felt like the book may have wanted to convince its pop-sci readers that–while they would only have a foggy idea of the why M-theory might have merit at the end of the book–they should remember that it’s the best–so that no funding gets cut from M-theory research and delivered to other lines of inquiry. In other words, the take-away sometimes feels like: “Stephen Hawking is super-smart, and he says ‘vote M-theory.’”]

I would recommend this book for those interested in the big picture of our universe’s existence, but as a neophyte it has made me want to read Woit’s “Not Even Wrong” or Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics” just so that I’ll know what the critics are saying.

View all my reviews