Subliminal: A book review by Bob Morris

SubliminalSubliminal: How the Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior
Leonard Mlodinow
Vintage Books/Random House (2012)

How and why “the work done by the unconscious is a critical part of our evolutionary mechanism”

Some of the best introductions to a work of non-fiction such as Subliminal are found when its author is sharing final thoughts. That is why I always read the epilogue or final chapter first. Here is what Leonard Mlodinow has to say when concluding his brilliant book:

“We choose the facts that we want to believe. We also choose our friends, lovers, and spouses not just because of the way we perceive them but because of the way they perceive us. Unlike phenomena in physics, in life, events can often obey one theory or another, and what actually happens can depend largely upon which theory we choose to believe. It is a gift of the mind to be extraordinarily open to accepting theory of ourselves that pushes us in the direction of survival, and even happiness. And so my parents did not sleep that night, while my father taught my mother to sew.”

The details of that scene are best revealed within the narrative, in context, and have significance only if you have absorbed and digestedc all that Mlodinow has previously shared. I remain unconvinced that my subconscious mind rules my behavior or that it rules Mlodinow’s but I realized decades ago that the subconscious was — and remains — one of the most powerful and yet least understood forces in neuroscience. Only recently has it been possible to quantify at least some of its influence on decision-making, for example. The Latin root of the word “subliminal” translates to “below threshold,” suggests that there were a few curious souls who sensed, at least, that there was something other than reason involved with choices.

One of Mlodinow’s primary purposes is serve as a travel companion for his reader during an exploration, in his words, “of our evolutionary heritage, of the surprising and exotic forces at play beneath the surface of our own minds, and of the impact of those unconscious instincts on what is usually considered willed, rational behavior — and impact that is much more powerful than we have previously believed it to be.”

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Mlodinow’s coverage.

o Interpretation of behavior (11-126, 38-41, 79-80, and 115-118)
o Collective behavior (26-29)
o Sensory input for brain (45-51 and 96-100)
o Phonemic restoration (48-50)
o Groups (68-70 and 161-175)
o Aggressive behavior 92-96)
o fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging (100-104)
o Perception (107-125, and 199-203)
o Impact of physical appearance (Pages 126-144)
o Competitive behavior, in-groups, and, conscious behavior (161-175 and 30-35, 42-45)
o Illusions (183-188)
o Introspection and self-identity (196-218)
o Motivated reasoning (200-214)

Mlodinow’s narrative is lively and eloquent. However, Subliminal is by no means an “easy read but will generously reward those who read it with a combination of curiosity, attention, and patience. I re-read it before setting to work on this review and, as with a great novel rich in compelling drama involving memorable characters, my mind picked up points of information, insights, and wit I previously missed. For non-scientists such as I, Mlodinow manages somehow to cover a great deal of important material without dumbing it down. In this context I am reminded of the works of Richard Feynman and, more recently, Daniel Dennett.

Frankly, I have always been suspicious of “positive illusions” which, in my opinion, are actually delusions. Mlodinow has convinced me that such positive illusions/delusions can sometimes help people to overcome or at least cope more effectively with unpleasant realities. The value of this book will be determined almost completely by how receptive and accessible a reader is to material that may be unfamiliar or inaccessible. Trust him and trust yourself.

So, I urge you to read this book if you are curious to learn more than you know now about (a) the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind, (b) how they interact and sometimes compete, (c) what their interactions and separate activities reveal about decision-making, and finally (d) how an increased (albeit incomplete) understanding of what is happening “below threshold,” ours and everyone else’s. New knowledge and understanding await you, as do Leonard Mlodinow and his book. Let the journey of exploration begin.

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