5 Myths of the Mind


I wrote a post a while back about six persistent brain myths that has some overlapping relevance to this one.

5.) A person is a unitary actor (the spherical cow of social sciences.) When I was a graduate student studying International Relations, a popular theoretical assumption was that nations were “unitary actors.” This meant that no matter how schizophrenic a government (and a nation’s civic institutions) might appear, they ultimately always pursued a national interest via a solitary hand. Like physicists assuming spherical cows, this makes life easier — even if it bears little resemblance to reality.

The full extent of the folly of the rational unitary actor assumption became apparent when I discovered that an individual isn’t even a unitary actor systematically pursuing its best interest. An individual is a collection of impulses, thoughts, feelings, etc. that seems like its under the command of a central authority only because that “central authority” [our conscious mind housed in our Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC)] is really good at forming post-hoc rationalizations and making up stories that let us feel unitary. The reader may think I’m just talking about some slim segment of the population with a multiple personality disorder, but no. I’m talking about anyone who has ever agonized over whether or not they should have an ice cream treat or take the healthy route. At the end of an internal battle that ends with the levers of action being operated by parts of your nervous system beyond your conscious control, you walk away with your conscious mind building a nice story that explains how it chose to either treat its taste buds or take it easy on its pancreas by keeping insulin production stable.

To consider how the conscious and subconscious mind can be on two entirely different pages on a subject, we’re going to veer into controversial and provocative territory. [So be warned, and if you’re sensitive about sexuality and particularly coercive sexual fantasy, you may want to skip down to the next paragraph.] Across a series of studies, an average of 40% of subjects (generally, or maybe exclusively women) admitted they’d had a fantasy about being raped. Many readers will react with incredulity, perhaps suggesting that there must be something wrong with such a person. However, obviously numbers like that aren’t describing a lunatic fringe. The next response one might here is, “Why doesn’t a person with a rape fantasy know how horrible and decidedly unsexy rape is?” If you’re following my gist, you know the answer is that said person knows very well. Consciously, she is aware that rape is violent and horrific, and moreover she probably even knows that it’s about commanding power rather than sexual desire for the rapist. This knowledge doesn’t undermine the fantasy [unless, perhaps, she really forces herself to think about it intensely] because the arousal is driven by a more visceral part of the mind that FEELS that the act is about the rapist being overwhelmed with sexual attraction even though the person KNOWS that that’s not the case.

[Note: I do realize that it might theoretically be possible that a much more complex collection consisting of many individuals and organizations might behave in a more unitary fashion than an individual. That is, even though a nation his made up of many non-unitary actors, perhaps the nature of the game forces it to behave in a unitary fashion. I don’t buy it. I’ve been reading a great example in a biography by Ingrid Carlberg about Raoul Wallenberg where both the Soviets (who had Wallenberg in custody but wouldn’t admit it) and the Swedes (who didn’t know whether Wallenberg was alive and sent mixed signals) were befuddled by varying actors sending mixed messages and collectively behaving ineffectively. It’s hard to come away thinking that Stalin and his Ministers had a rational and unified decision process. Instead, it seems like a perfect storm of incompetency and incorrect assumptions resulted in an outcome that wasn’t ideal for any of the parties.]


4.) Everyone can be hypnotized via instant induction and then commanded to do anything that’s asked of them.  Hypnosis is among the most misunderstood activities around. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that hypnosis is a favorite device in movies and fiction, and people draw information from these fictitious sources. The “Now You See Me” movies (see above) offer many such displays of a person being instantaneously hypnotized against his will even when the person is an expert himself, and made to do things against his interests. Misconception also flowers when people hear real or fictitious accounts of Cold War programs like America’s MK Ultra or the Soviet’s psychotronics. The lesson to be taken away from those expensive and morally-dubious programs is that it may be possible to break a person’s mind, but you can’t force someone to do something they abhor while programming them to forget all about it afterwards.

Another reason for the misunderstanding, is that there’s a disreputable group of stage hypnotists and others who love to spread these ideas because it’s more intriguing if people think they can do it to anyone at any time than if they understand that their subjects have been carefully selected to be among the more readily prone to achieve trance states and to be responsive to suggestion. It’s true that most people are hypnotizable and will respond to suggestions to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do (as long as it’s not something that they don’t want to do.) But highly hypnotizable individuals are only about 15% of the population, and there’s another 15% at the other end that are virtually impossible to hypnotize. The video below has more detail on the science.


3.) One has no access to one’s subconscious mind. The conscious mind is like the loudmouthed drunk who swears he invented the potato chip bag clip, the envelope-wetting sponge, and Velcro. That is, it’s hard to hear over the din of incessant yapping, and since the conscious mind claims credit for everything, it’s easy to be fooled that there’s nothing else to listen to in the mind. However, if you can knock the drunk out, you start to become aware of what the subconscious has to say. Those who don’t meditate may be aware of subconscious imagery as they are falling to sleep (the hypnogogic state), as they are waking up (the hypnopompic state), or sometimes even during dreams (i.e. so-called lucid dreams or dream yoga.) Those who do meditate will be well aware of images that spontaneously form and fade in the meditative mind, and which can give rise to conscious thoughts if left unchecked.


2.) Memory is a recording of life events.  I’ve been reading Julia Shaw’s “The Memory Illusion” recently. It’s a fascinating look at false memories. There are many famous cases of false memory, but what is most interesting is Shaw’s success in planting false memories of criminal activity. “Planting” isn’t the best term to describe this. It’s more about getting the subject to visualize events such that they create the false memory. While I stand by what I said about the myths of hypnosis, there have been a number of cases of false memories being implanted while an individual was in a hypnotic trance, and so one shouldn’t disregard the power of hypnosis altogether.  The fact of the matter is that what we remember isn’t the occurrence of the event itself, but the last remembrance of said event. This means that there’s a great deal of room for memory degradation over time, and for a false transcript of events to form in the mind.


1.) Emotions get in the way of good decision making. I just posted a review of Antonio Damasio’s book “Decartes’ Error,” which examines this subject in great detail. Damasio found that patients who had damage to parts of the brain responsible for emotion often became victims of paralysis by analysis. That is, without emotion to give them a kick, they can’t make decisions. Reason doesn’t always provide a clear answer because the world is filled with uncertainty. When there’s not enough information, we still need to make decisions, and this is accomplished by emotional “gut instincts.”

POEM: Thought Bubbles

Source: Spiff via Wikipedia


Silence the jittery critter.
Ride the dullness down
to where images bubble.

In that blurry dimness
one feels their logic,
but shine the mind’s light
and all sense shatters —
dissolving into shadows
without a trace.

Leaving only the dull ache of betrayal
that, as in a dream,
something so absurd and fragile
could feel so wise.

BOOK REVIEW: Incognito by David Eagleman

IncognitoIncognito by David Eagleman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This is the book that started me on a fascination with the science of the subconscious mind. In it, Eagleman explains that our subconscious mind has a much bigger role than our consciousness lets us believe. We feel that the conscious mind is in charge of the whole enchilada of our mental being, but in reality the conscious is often late to the party while still managing to weave a narrative about how it saved the day. The conscious has an important role, but one much more limited than it seems, but because consciousness Is the frame through which we are aware the world, it’s easy to miss how much the subconscious handles.


The book is organized into seven chapters. The first chapter sets up the notion that the mind is like an iceberg, the subconscious is the more massive portion that lies below the waterline, and the conscious is the peak that lies above.


The second chapter explores the interface of the senses and the mind. We think that our sensory experience of the world is like looking through a spyglass, but it’s much more a secondary rendering—subject to editing and corruption. Eagleman discusses many illusions that serve to show us that our sensory experience is not as true as we feel it to be.


Chapter three investigates why it is that in some cases the more we think about a task the worse we do with it, and how biases show up even among those who swear they don’t have a racist notion in their body. A number of interesting cases, such as chicken sexing, are used to convey where our conscious mind is of no use to us. Anyone who’s practiced a martial art is aware that sometimes thinking is death.


The fourth chapter explains concepts like instinct and our perception of beauty and attractiveness. It’s entitled, “The Kind of Thoughts That Are Thinkable,” and that gives some insight into the theme.


The next chapter covers one of the most important ideas of the book, that our brains are not all on one page on any given idea. This is one thing that our conscious mind dupes us into believing, that we have a certain belief and that we are uniformly of that view. In fact, our reasoning and emotional systems often have quite different perspectives on a matter. As I mentioned earlier the people who think they don’t have a racist notion in their body. In one sense, they are correct in that they can reason that it’s illogical to think of people differently based on skin color, but such a person still often shows a marked bias when asked to make associations that are made more quickly when they are not at odds for the subconscious.


Chapter 6 gets into the policy ramifications of what has been discussed to this point. If decisions aren’t a product of the conscious mind, then are we right to send people to prison for crimes that they didn’t consciously decide to commit and couldn’t have consciously overruled? The case of Charles Whitman who took up a sniper position in the University of Texas clock tower in 1966 takes center stage in this discussion. Whitman suffered a great change of behavior that was posthumously (by autopsy) linked to the development of a tumor. Eagleman proposes that the traditional question of blameworthiness is the wrong one.


The last chapter reflects upon what it means to be a human person in light of a mind arising from material activity. A central idea is the self as an emergent property rather than the “thing” we feel it to be.


The book presents many monochrome graphics of various types to support the text. It’s also annotated and has a substantial bibliographic section.


I’d recommend this book for anyone interested the nature of the subconscious mind. Eagleman uses interesting cases to demonstrate his points. This makes it quite readable while conveying some challenging ideas.

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5 Books to Introduce You to Your Subconscious

In a world free of frontiers, the subconscious mind is the final frontier.


Below are a few books that I found useful. The hyperlinks forward to my review on GoodReads or the book’s GoodReads page.


Also, I’ve included three honorable mention books that I haven’t yet reviewed, but which seem both relevant and intriguing.


5.) Brainwashing by Kathleen Taylor: What makes some minds more malleable than others and how are minds bent to a given purpose? In learning the answers, one discovers that the bases of our beliefs are often more deep-seated than one might believe.




4.) Sleights of Mind by Macknik & Martinez-Conde: Magicians and mentalists are notoriously skilled at exploiting the chinks in the armor of  our minds.




3.) Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow: Physicist and pop science writer, Leonard Mlodinow, explores the many ways in which our behavior is more influenced from the back of the house than we feel to be the case.




2.) The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: This is my nod to the fact that the Western scientific community isn’t the only entity that has something useful to say on this subject. Tibetan Buddhists have a long tradition (arguably predating Buddhism and into the Bon-era) of dream yoga (lucid dreaming) and our dreams offer the greatest portal to the subconscious.




1.) Incognito by David Eagleman: Eagleman tells us that our conscious mind represents the tip of the mental iceberg, and he explores the many ways in which we are subject to the vagaries of what exists below the surface.




Here are a few others.


The Man Who Wasn’t There by Anil Ananthaswamy: I just finished this book. In it, the author investigates whether there really is  such a thing as the self by studying a number of diseases and phenomena of the mind that look like negations of self. (e.g. Cotard’s Syndrome in which people insist they are dead, depersonalization disorder in which life seems a dream in a literal rather than poetic sense, out-of-body-experiences in which there is a hallucination that one is outside one’s body, etc.)


The Attention Merchants  by Tim Wu: I haven’t read this one yet, but it’s said to be good and is about how our programming is exploited to keep us clicking. If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t seem to just drop social media even when it seems like a phenomenal waste of time–why it exerts such a strong pull–this book delves into what proclivities of the mind have been seized upon.


Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal: I’m about 1/3rd of the way through this one. It has some overlap with the Wu book. In it, McGonigal asks why games have so much appeal–even to the extent of becoming addictive. As with why we keep clicking, the answer has a lot more to do with the primitive parts of our mind than the high tech subject matter might suggest.

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.

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