Book Review--Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

Large and In Charge—Maybe

Human beings like to think “I am the master of my fate:  I am the captain of my soul,” but  bestselling author Leonard Mlodinow makes clear in his New York Time number one book Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior that isn’t the case. Mlodinow takes the reader through an easily readable scientific tour of how the brain works and how much the unconscious mind influences decisions that we are not aware of.

Mlodinow who received his PhD in theoretical physics has written books with Deepak Chopra and Stephen Hawking is certainly no light weight when it comes to brain power, but despite his obvious expertise, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior is an easy read filled with profound observations about how many of the things humans do are not done in the immediate consciousness.

The author shows how neurological research over the past two decades makes it clear that “the way we experience the world--our perception, behavior, memory, and social judgment—is largely driven by the mind's subliminal processes and not by the conscious ones, as we have long believed.” The subliminal processes of the mind are well known to marketeers and millions of dollars are spent trying to find ways to package and advertise products that connect with the subliminal mind of the consumer.

The book cites numerous examples of how the subconscious mind grabs seemingly insignificant things and puts them into to conscious decisions. Mlodinow uses a blind taste test where a group of people were asked to rate the taste of wines. In the test, the wines were displayed with their prices listed below each bottle. After a taste test participants were asked to rate each bottle of wine. Nearly every time, the more expensive bottle received the highest rating for taste. Unknown to the participants all the bottles contained the same wine.

In the now famous Coke/Pepsi drink war, Coke consistently beat out Pepsi, but in a blind taste test, Pepsi beat out Coke by nearly a 2:1 margin. Again, it was a case of marketing and advertising playing upon Coke brand recognition as being the superior drink even though the blind taste test showed otherwise. In another case a man blinded by two strokes was able to negotiate a hallway filled with obstacles even though he had no idea of where they were located.  Scientist named the phenomenon “blind-sight.”

The author uses concise, accessible explanations of the “most obscure scientific subjects to unravel the complexities of the subliminal mind. In the process he shows the many ways it influences how we misperceive our relationships with family, friends, and business associates; how we misunderstand the reasons for our investment decisions; and how we misremember important events—along the way, changing our view of ourselves and the world around us.”

Mlodinow explains how the brain is structured and how some information in the brain cannot be accessed. Many like to compare the brain to a computer, but the reference is skewed as most computers process information serially, meaning one bit at a time although at lightening speeds. However the brain is a multilevel processing organ and processes information along multiple parallel levels in different divisions. Some of those divisions are highly specialized as Mlodinow explains.

Reading through the book raises an obvious question and that is as human beings do we really have freewill or is free will the subconscious mind controlling conscious perceptions making freewill a moot point? It is difficult to explain away freewill when the unconscious mind controls a large part of what makes us human beings.

Keeping all those things in mind, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior is an interesting read if you have an inquisitive mind and want to know why you do the things you do. A five star read


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Comment by Joan Denoo on July 4, 2016 at 6:27pm

Several years ago I read Sharon Begley's report How Thinking Can Change the Brain, January 29th 2007. "Wall Street Journal) Dalai Lama helps scientists show the power of the mind to sculpt our gray matter.?

Every few years the Dalai Lama invites a group of scientists to his home in Dharamsala, in Northern India, to discuss their work and how Buddhism might contribute to it.

In 2004 the subject was neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to change its structure and function in response to experience. Neuroscientists  explained that mental experiences reflect chemical and electrical changes in the brain. When electrical impulses zip through our visual cortex we see; when neurochemicals course through the limbic system we feel.

In a study using strong antidepressant drugs on a group depressed patients and cognitive therapy on another group of depressed patients, they found; 

All the patients' depression lifted, regardless of whether their brains were infused with a powerful drug or with a different way of thinking. Yet the only 'drugs' that the cognitive-therapy group received were their own thoughts.

With cognitive therapy the brain is rewired 'to adopt different thinking circuits.'

Neuroscientist Helen Mayberg

I had a similar experience when I was in cancer treatment, I became depressed and the Cancer Care Center Northwest referred me to their cognitive therapist. Long before the first hour was up, my depression lifted. I didn't need further treatment for depression. 

"This positive state is a skill that can be trained," Prof. Davidson says. "Our findings clearly indicate that meditation can change the function of the brain in an enduring way."


I had cognitive behavior training and learned how to meditate 30 years before. When I became depressed I had the mental tools to lift out of the dark hole.  

Comment by Idaho Spud on July 4, 2016 at 11:02am

Donald, it sounds like a book I might like to read.  It may help my thinking and conclusions. 

However, a couple of the things you mentioned in the book are similar to things I've experienced and am pleased to say I don't fall for.  Choosing something because the price is higher is one I don't do.  Being influenced by brand names or familiar names is another I don't do.  I also don't think I'm influenced nearly as much as most people by advertisements.  I hate them.  I think they influence me more against their product than for it.

Comment by Donald R Barbera on July 4, 2016 at 9:39am
Spud--you raise a valid point. What's to keep us from having a Wild West civilization. I believe that societal rules and accepted behavioral normal prevent us from from immoral beings. Rules were an outgrowth of ideas to protect society. You've asked a question frequently brought up by Christian, "how can you be moral without God? Tied to freewill the question might not be as simple as it seems.
Comment by Donald R Barbera on July 4, 2016 at 9:25am
James--it is an interesting but confusing subject. When I attended Catholic I recall asking a priest "if God knows everything why do we exist?" The priest told me that even though God already knew if we would go to heaven or hell when we died, we had free will to change the outcome. Even as a second grader, to me his answer made no sense. This is why I found this book so interesting. Stuff like this stimulates what little brains I have.
Comment by Michael Penn on July 4, 2016 at 8:49am

Spud, your morality comes out of your structure of society and the laws that your society has. You want to treat others as you would like to be treated, so this is largely your sense of morality.

Free will is there to a degree but it comes largely out of your past in what you have experienced and have been taught. James has put in some good insight here as well.

Comment by Idaho Spud on July 4, 2016 at 8:30am

I don't care for philosophy, but these free will discussions keep popping-up, so I have read more of the comments lately, and still don't understand much of what is said.

Can someone explain it to me in a short paragraph, with common small words?

Also, I keep wondering, if I don't have free will, why should I even bother trying to be moral or understand anything?  Can someone explain what is wrong with my thoughts?

Comment by Michael Penn on July 4, 2016 at 7:22am

Obviously many of us know not of what we speak. I'm one of them, but I agree with most of these writers on "free will." I often say "the rapist had the free will to rape you just as you had the free will to be raped." What I'm really saying here is that much of "free will" is predetermined. I can see this in myself in decisions I have made when I wonder on why I made that particular choice. Everything in my personal past had went together to "make that choice for me." We still have the illusion of free will however. Deciding what to eat might be an example. You have decided on the chicken because you knew you should balance the diet and hadn't had chicken in a while. It was a choice that you made but still, your daily diet is pretty much predetermined. Some of this even goes into what part of the world you live in.

Free will got a "free ride" in religion because they say god gave you the choice whether to serve him or not. Apologists call this free will. We all know that god didn't want a bunch of robots, but how do you explain the angels? One might as well say you have the choice whether to breath or not. If this last one is true and you do not breath, then you will be dead. So much for "free will." Can you choose not to breath? Maybe so if you put a plastic bag over your head.

We do have "free will" but it is an illusion as Sam Harris has said. Our experiences may or may not appear in our consciousness to influence us as Pinker points out. The bottom line on this is that our choices come out of things in our past.

Comment by Joan Denoo on July 3, 2016 at 11:46pm

Michael, I don't mean to respond so abruptly to you about free will. One of the myths of religion and taught by Roman Catholics and Protestants is that god gave humans free will and they can choose whether to be obedient to god or disobedient. I agree with Donald about Sam Harris's book on Freewill. 

Harris uses neuroscience to establish that humans make decisions before we are aware of making them. 

Sam Harris-Free will is an illusion

Steven Pinker makes a much clearer definition of persons not having free will because of experiences that may or may not appear in our consciousness.

Steven Pinker: On Free Will

Daniel Dennett disagrees, and I don't seem to be able to make sense of the way Dennett explains his reasoning. 

Daniel Dennett - What is Free Will?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein offers an explanation or reasons that I can't decipher. 

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein Is Consciousness an Illusion

So, Michael, if you can arrive at a conclusion I want to hear it. Obviously, I know not of which I speak!

Comment by jay H on July 3, 2016 at 7:39pm

Much of what we consider subconscious (or instinctive) is quite likely our older 'animal' brain doing much of the work for us. Logical thinking was a powerful tool, but slow, and inaccurate in times of limited information.

As usual, natural selection did not throw away the highly successful primate brain which is very fast and perceptive, and wrapped it with an overlay of logical thinking. But naturally the two systems must communicate, and we most often see this in the form of instinctive, intuitive or gut feeling.

Comment by Michael Penn on July 2, 2016 at 12:14pm

We do have free will but in a limited way, and it is a moot point. I have the free will to be a murderer, or not to be a murderer. The free will idea is not a religious one at all and everything is greatly subliminal and run by the subconscious. This is why other people, books, movies, etc. influence us so much.

I look backwards at my own life now and see a giant mess. I can see where a great many of my actions and ideas came from, and see it all in great depth in which I do not look too pretty. I can also do this with almost any person that I know pretty well. To be able to do it you have to shatter the ego. One problem with the world is that we have way too many egos. We thought we were the captain of the ship but were really led on by multiple subliminals. The difference is that I am not trying to justify myself any longer. A believer is always in a battle to be justified. Religion is all about justification.

Yes, we do have liars unawares. The biggest ones of these are in a godmyth situation.



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