Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

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, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307472250
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/12/2013
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 54,677
Product dimensions: 5.34(w) x 7.84(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Leonard Mlodinow received his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California, Berkeley, was an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow at the Max Planck Institute, and now teaches at the California Institute of Technology. His previous books include three New York Times best sellers: War of the Worldviews (with Deepak Chopra), The Grand Design (with Stephen Hawking), and The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (also a New York Times Notable Book), as well as Feynman’s Rainbow and Euclid’s Window. He also wrote for the television series MacGyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents


PART I: The Two-tiered Brain

1. The New Unconscious: The hidden role of our subliminal selves . . . what it means when you don’t call your mother

2. Senses Plus Mind Equals Reality: The two-tier system of the brain . . . how you can see something without knowing it

3. Remembering and Forgetting: How the brain builds memories . . . why we sometimes remember what never happened

4. The Importance of Being Social: The fundamental role of human social character . . . why Tylenol can mend a broken heart
Part II: The Social Unconscious

5. Reading People: How we communicate without speaking . . . how to know who’s the boss by watching her eyes

6. Judging People by Their Covers: What we read into looks, voice, and touch . . . how to win voters, attract a date, or beguile a female cowbird

7. Sorting People and Things: Why we categorize things and stereotype people . . .what Lincoln, Gandhi, and Che Guevara had in common

8. In-Groups and Out-Groups: The dynamics of us and them . . . the science behind Lord of the Flies

9. Feelings: The nature of emotions . . . why the prospect of falling hundreds of feet onto large boulders has the same effect as a flirtatious smile and a black silk nightgown

10. Self: How our ego defends its honor . . . why schedules are overly optimistic and failed CEOs feel they deserve golden parachutes




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.”

“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.”

“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

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Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A fascinating look at the relationship between the unconscious and conscious mind written in understandable scientific terms. The author leaves Freud behind (where he belongs) and looks to the work of William James as the seminal authority on the modern view of the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious. The material on memory gaps and the role of the unconscious in producing "filler" is found in other works, but the treatment here is particularly clear and readable. The author demonstrates how our unconscious plays a positive role in shaping our conscious views and why none of us, no matter what we believe, are truly unbiased because the unconscious protects and defends our view of ourselves. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I'm 13 and I found this very fascinating, and easy to follow along with only a seventh grade understanding of the brain.
WriteReason More than 1 year ago
An interesting study on the subject matter. Filled with examples of studies of the conscious and subconscious, and the histories of men who pioneered these studies. Perhaps to many examples--but how else to present this type of information? If you have any interest in this subject I recommend this book, otherwise it bogs down with all these studies that are interesting, but are a little over done.
joyscola More than 1 year ago
I was a bit unsure about getting this book, at first, seeing as how I'm not a scientist – nor do I have a degree equivalent of – but am glad I purchased it. This book breaks down how your unconscious (along with how it affects your conscious) mind works and relates it to everyday situations so that you may easily understand and grasp the concepts. Think of it as the book version of the show, Bill Nye the Science Guy (for those of you who are young/old enough to have watched it as a kid) – it’s funny and laid-back all while being EXTREMELY informative.
SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
Written in a pleasing conversational style, Leaonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal is not a book of lectures or a science text, but it is an intriguing and enticing introduction to the advantages and disadvantages of our human makeup, conscious and subconscious selves alike. The author presents enough historical information to orient the reader between Freud and the present day, often surprising with his description of how much has changed in the last fifty years. Where once we imagined ourselves in control of our thoughts and decisions (especially voting preferences, though Freud allowed us little control at all), now we’re presented with experiments which show that control manipulated in the simplest (scariest) ways. Which, of course, could leave readers imagining a hopeless world where only those with power and money to manipulate can succeed. But there’s more to it than that, and our weaknesses can also be our strengths. As an aspiring (dreaming) author, I found the section on how we delude ourselves, overvaluing our own skills and undervaluing others’, quite depressing. But it’s followed at once with the story of persistence rewarded—our very self-delusion keeps us going. So I’ll persist, but perhaps with a bit more knowledge than before. Even if my cynical conscious self denied the value of some of the experiments , I still really enjoyed the book and couldn’t stop talking about it. However, please don’t force me to choose which jam I prefer, because I can promise I’ll change my mind in an eyeblink. Disclosure: I didn’t see the subliminal messages on the cover. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. But it was next to a book on a similar topic on the bookshelf, so I bought them both.
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watkd25 More than 1 year ago
This is a good book. I felt that the author could have talked more about the subconscious and conscious parts of the mind at a more technical level. Since this is the second book I have read on the topic partially including "Thinking Fast and Slow," I have reason to calculate this reasoning and generate an inference.
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Book_Lover_Bob More than 1 year ago
I found this book very entertaining and informative and it surprised me with a very uplifting ending.
louieML More than 1 year ago
I couldn't follow along, too lengthy and seemed repetative.
cupiddave More than 1 year ago
This book draws attention to the ever watching third eye that has been "subliminally" guiding us, the conscious living generations after generations with an over view of the past we are not yet privy to consciously. This is the Personal Relationship available to us all who seriously respect and take note of "his" presence. The Unconscious mind is an experientally based source of Truth that has grown, developed, and matured over the 150,000 years of modrn man's existence and surely even further back in our phylogenetic roots. Taken too lightly even now, after this book has at least scratched the surface of our conscious awareness of this secret friend inside our head, who time and again has whispered great insights and bubbled up in our mind thoughts we ourselves know were not original within the boundaries of our own conscious intellect. "In 1920 when Neils Bohr was getting on a bus and thinking intently only of his daughter, the entire structure of quantum mechanics came to him in a flash (as he describes it). Where that flash or intelligence came from, and the timing of it, this is the Pure Intelligence I'm speaking about." (This experience revealed the inner immanent God to which Christians refer when they speak of a personal relationship with God). . Revelation 21:4-5 And God, (blessing them with Total Phylogenetic Consciousness: [Carl Jung]), shall wipe away, (in their awakened Unconscious Mind: [Freudian Hypothesis]), all tears from their eyes, (for life is a genetically remember able continuum from one generation to the next living generation); (in genetic memories of prior existences held in our Unconscious Mind) there shall be no more death... (For we shall not all "sleep:" [1Co15:51], but total phylogenetic Consciousness will have evolved), neither sorrow... (for we, individually, are part of a living continuum of our own past(s), flowers upon our genetic vine), nor crying,.. (for we are happy in these revelations of reconstitution from our human gene pool), neither shall there be any more pain...) for the former things (in Modern Homo sapiens paradigm of the life experience) are passed away. And “He,” (the ancient, phylogenetic, Collective Unconscious Mind), that sat upon the throne (within the kingdom of the evolving Homoiousian sapiens' brain: [Luke 17:21]) said, Behold, (in this way, through evolution: [Gen 9:11-18]), I make all things (in human experience) new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true, (rational, and scientifically feasible), and (worthy of) faithful (belief).