Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

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by Leonard Mlodinow
     
 

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Leonard Mlodinow, the best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking), gives us a startling and eye-opening examination of how the unconscious mind shapes our experience of the world and how, for instance, we often misperceive our relationships with family, friends, and business associates,

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Overview

Leonard Mlodinow, the best-selling author of The Drunkard’s Walk and coauthor of The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking), gives us a startling and eye-opening examination of how the unconscious mind shapes our experience of the world and how, for instance, we often misperceive our relationships with family, friends, and business associates, misunderstand the reasons for our investment decisions, and misremember important events.

Your preference in politicians, the amount you tip your waiter—all judgments and perceptions reflect the workings of our mind on two levels: the conscious, of which we are aware, and the unconscious, which is hidden from us. The latter has long been the subject of speculation, but over the past two decades researchers have developed remarkable new tools for probing the hidden, or subliminal, workings of the mind. The result of this explosion of research is a new science of the unconscious and a sea change in our understanding of how the subliminal mind affects the way we live.

Employing his trademark wit and lucid, accessible explanations of the most obscure scientific subjects, Leonard Mlodinow takes us on a tour of this research, unraveling the complexities of the subliminal self and increasing our understanding of how the human mind works and how we interact with friends, strangers, spouses, and coworkers. In the process he changes our view of ourselves and the world around us.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
We are not always in control of our thoughts and decisions. In fact, physicist and science writer Mlodinow (The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives) states, "much of our social perception—like our vision, hearing and memory—appears to proceed along pathways not associated with awareness, intention, or conscious effort." Mlodinow examines the role of the unconscious in everyday decision making, demonstrating that much of the activity we think is under our voluntary control is not. Brain imaging studies in social science experiments have confirmed many findings of experimental psychology: the unconscious, programmed for survival, operates in parallel processes, independently of the conscious mind. Given choices, the unconscious prefers the positive, favors the attractive, values nonverbal cues, and may select the irrational. Mlodinow goes on to discuss the subliminal aspects of common social situations from dating to voting. VERDICT Many of the these topics have been similarly examined in Shankar Vedantam's The Hidden Brain, though Mlodinow introduces the new field of social neuroscience. [See Prepub Alert, 11/14/11.]—Lucille M. Boone, San Jose P.L., CA
Kirkus Reviews
Physicist Mlodinow (Physics/Caltech; The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, 2008, etc.) takes a wide-ranging look at some of the mysteries of the unconscious mind. As with his previous books, the author aims to make complex scientific concepts accessible to non-scientists. Here he samples a wide variety of studies and anecdotes from the 19th century to the present day, exploring the behaviors humans engage in without being aware of what they are doing. Because so many actions that affect our senses, memories, social interactions and self-image occur unconsciously, "the real reasons behind our judgments, feelings, and behavior can surprise us." A 2005 study, for example, found that people tend to unconsciously eat larger amounts of popcorn, regardless of its quality, if they receive a larger container of it. In another study, test subjects reacted differently to computerized voices depending on whether they sounded male or female, with subjects showing profound but unconscious gender biases. In a loose, easygoing style, Mlodinow combines numerous accounts of scientific studies with pop-culture references and even personal anecdotes. While many of his topics are fascinating individually, the author tries to cover too much ground in just over 200 pages. Among dozens of other subjects, he writes about the early history of psychology, experiments with a blind stroke victim, a horse named Clever Hans, the inaccuracies of the testimony of Watergate figure John Dean and his own mother's relationship with her pet Russian tortoise. Ultimately, the book never full coheres, and the reader comes away with little concrete insight into the unconscious--save that it is a subject full of mystery. A diverting but scattershot examination of undeniably intriguing aspects of human behavior.
From the Publisher
“Clever, engaging. . . . A popular-science beach book, the sort of tome from which cocktail party anecdotes can be mined by the dozen. . . . Subliminal makes its main point well and concisely.”
The Oregonian

“An assault against the idea that we control our decisions and our beliefs in the way that we think we do . . . A useful addition to the growing body of work arguing convincingly against the idea of the rational human brain.”
The Daily Beast
 
“Mlodinow, a theoretical physicist who has been developing a nice sideline in popular science writing, shows how the idea of the unconscious has become respectable again . . . Fascinating.”
The Economist

“This very enlightening book explores the two sides of our mental lives, with a focus on the subconscious or subliminal element. Drawing on clinical research conducted over a period of several decades and containing a number of rather startling revelations . . . the book appeals to readers with an interest in the workings of the human mind.” 
Booklist 

“One of the ten books to watch out for in 2012 . . . Physicist, science writer and Hollywood screenwriter Leonard Mlodinow is out to explore how important the unconscious is in shaping the way we process the world.”
—NewScientist.com
 
“Mlodinow never fails to make science both accessible and entertaining.”
—Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time
 
“Think you know the whys and hows of your choices? Follow Mlodinow on a gorgeous journey that will make you think again.”
—David Eagleman, author of Incognito
 
“With the same deft touch he showed in The Drunkard’s Walk, Mlodinow probes the subtle, automatic, and often unnoticed influences on our behavior.”
—Daniel J. Simons, professor of psychology, University of Illinois, and coauthor of The Invisible Gorilla
 
“If you liked The Drunkard’s Walk, you’ll love Subliminal. This engaging and insightful book not only makes neuroscience understandable, it also makes it fascinating. You will look at yourself (and those around you) in a new way.”
—Joseph T. Hallinan, author of Why We Make Mistakes
 
“A must-read book that is both provocative and hugely entertaining. Mlodinow provides many eye-opening insights into the ways we act in business, finance, politics, and our personal lives.”
—Jerry A. Webman, chief economist, OppenheimerFunds, Inc., and author of MoneyShift
 
“A highly readable, funny, and thought-provoking travelogue by Mlodinow, a trusted traveler in this treacherous region, who leads us on a tour of the little-known country that is our unconscious mind.”
—Christof Koch, professor of cognitive and behavioral biology, California Institute of Technology

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307378217
Publisher:
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
04/24/2012
Pages:
272
Sales rank:
304,332
Product dimensions:
9.46(w) x 6.18(h) x 1.06(d)

Read an Excerpt

  Prologue
 
In June 1879, the American philosopher and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce was on a steamship journey from Boston to New York when his gold watch was stolen from his stateroom. Peirce reported the theft and insisted that each member of the ship’s crew line up on deck. He interviewed them all, but got nowhere. Then, after a short walk, he did something odd. He decided to guess who the perpetrator was, even though he had nothing to base his suspicions on, like a poker player going all in with a pair of deuces. As soon as Peirce made his guess, he found himself convinced that he had fingered the right man. “I made a little loop in my walk,” he would later write, “which had not taken a minute, and as I turned -toward them, all shadow of doubt had vanished.”
 
Peirce confidently approached his suspect, but the man called his bluff and denied the accusation. With no evidence or logical reason to back his claim, there was nothing Peirce could do—until the ship docked. When it did, Peirce immediately took a cab to the local Pinkerton office and hired a detective to investigate. The detective found Peirce’s watch at a pawnshop the next day. Peirce asked the proprietor to describe the man who’d pawned it. According to Peirce, the pawnbroker described the suspect “so graphically that no doubt was possible that it had been my man.” Peirce wondered how he had guessed the identity of the thief. He concluded that some kind of instinctual perception had guided him, something operating beneath the level of his conscious mind.
 
If mere speculation were the end of the story, a scientist would consider Peirce’s explanation about as convincing as someone saying, “A little birdie told me.” But five years later Peirce found a way to translate his ideas about unconscious perception into a laboratory experiment by adapting a procedure that had first been carried out by the physiologist E. H. Weber in 1834. Weber had placed small weights of varying degrees of heaviness, one at a time, at a spot on a subject’s skin, in order to determine the minimum weight difference that could be detected by the subject. In the experiment performed by Peirce and his prize student, Joseph Jastrow, the subjects of the study were given weights whose difference was just below that minimum detectable threshold (those subjects were actually Peirce and Jastrow themselves, with Jastrow experimenting on Peirce, and Peirce on Jastrow). Then, although they could not consciously discriminate between the weights, they asked each other to try to identify the heavier weight anyway, and to indicate on a scale running from 0 to 3 the degree of confidence they had in each guess. Naturally, on almost all trials both men chose 0. But despite their lack of confidence, they in fact chose the correct object on more than 60 percent of the trials, significantly more than would have been expected by chance. And when Peirce and Jastrow repeated the experiment in other contexts, such as judging surfaces that differed slightly in brightness, they obtained a comparable result—they could often correctly guess the answer even though they did not have conscious access to the information that would allow them to come to that conclusion. This was the first scientific demonstration that the unconscious mind possesses knowledge that escapes the conscious mind.
 
Peirce would later compare the ability to pick up on unconscious cues with some considerable degree of accuracy to “a bird’s musical and aeronautic powers . . . it is to us, as those are to them, the loftiest of our merely instinctive powers.” He elsewhere referred to it as that “inward light . . . a light without which the human race would long ago have been extirpated for its utter incapacity in the struggles for existence.” In other words, the work done by the unconscious is a critical part of our evolutionary survival mechanism. For over a century now, research and clinical psychologists have been cognizant of the fact that we all possess a rich and active unconscious life that plays out in parallel to our conscious thoughts and feelings and has a powerful effect on them, in ways we are only now beginning to be able to measure with some degree of accuracy.
 
Carl Jung wrote, “There are 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.” The Latin root of the word “subliminal” translates to “below threshold.” Psychologists employ the term to mean below the threshold of consciousness. This book is about subliminal effects in that broad sense—about the processes of the unconscious mind and how they influence us. To gain a true understanding of human experience, we must understand both our conscious and our unconscious selves, and how they interact. Our subliminal brain is invisible to us, yet it influences our conscious experience of the world in the most fundamental of ways: how we view ourselves and others, the meanings we attach to the everyday events of our lives, our ability to make the quick judgment calls and decisions that can sometimes mean the difference between life and death, and the actions we engage in as a result of all these instinctual experiences.
 
Though the unconscious aspects of human behavior were actively speculated about by Jung, Freud, and many others over the past century, the methods they employed—introspection, observations of overt behavior, the study of people with brain deficits, the implanting of electrodes into the brains of animals—provided only fuzzy and indirect knowledge. Meanwhile, the true origins of human behavior remained obscure. Things are different today. Sophisticated new technologies have revolutionized our understanding of the part of the brain that operates below our conscious mind—what I’m referring to here as the subliminal world. These technologies have made it possible, for the first time in human history, for there to be an actual science of the unconscious. That new science of the unconscious is the subject of this book.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher

“With great wit and intelligence, Mlodinow takes us on a sweeping tour of this [mental] landscape and the latest revelations in neuroscience.”
    —The Huffington Post

“Mlodinow plunges into the realm of the unconscious mind accompanied by the latest scientific research . . . [with] plenty of his trademark humor.”
    —Los Angeles Times

“Clever [and] engaging. . . . A popular-science beach book, the sort of tome from which cocktail party anecdotes can be mined by the dozen.” —The Oregonian
 
“Fascinating. . . . Shows how the idea of the unconscious has become respectable again.” —The Economist
 
“A must-read book that is both provocative and hugely entertaining.” —Jerry A. Webman, chief economist, OppenheimerFunds, Inc., and author of MoneyShift

“Leonard Mlodinow never fails to make science both accessible and entertaining.”
    —Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time

“An assault against the idea that we control our decisions and our beliefs in the way that we think we do . . . . A useful addition to the growing body of work arguing convincingly against the idea of the rational human brain.”
    —The Daily Beast

“Mlodinow thinks in equations but explains in anecdote, simile, and occasional bursts of neon. . . . The results are mind-bending.”
    —Fortune

“Mlodinow argues his case persuasively and with humor.”
    —The Montreal Gazette

“In a loose, easygoing style, Mlodinow combines numerous accounts of scientific studies with pop-culture references and even personal anecdotes.”
    —Kirkus Reviews

“Mlodinow is the perfect guy to reveal the ways unrelated elements can relate and connect.”
    —The Miami Herald

“This very enlightening book explores the two sides of our mental lives, with a focus on the subconscious or subliminal element. Drawing on clinical research conducted over a period of several decades and containing a number of rather startling revelations . . . the book appeals to readers with an interest in the workings of the human mind.”
    —Booklist

“Think you know the whys and hows of your choices? Think again. Follow Mlodinow on a gorgeous journey into the enormous mental backstage behind the curtain of consciousness.” 
    —David Eagleman, neuroscientist and author of Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

“With the same deft touch he showed in The Drunkard’s Walk, Mlodinow probes the subtle, automatic, and often unnoticed influences on our behavior.”
     —Daniel J. Simons, professor of psychology, University of Illinois, and coauthor of The Invisible Gorilla

“If you liked The Drunkard’s Walk, you’ll love Subliminal. This engaging and insightful book not only makes neuroscience understandable, it also makes it fascinating. You will look at yourself (and those around you) in a new way.”
     —Joseph T. Hallinan, author of Why We Make Mistakes

“A highly readable, funny, and thought-provoking travelogue by Mlodinow, a trusted traveler in this treacherous region, who leads us on a tour of the little-known country that is our unconscious mind.” —Christof Koch, professor of cognitive and behavioral biology, California Institute of Technology

Read More

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