Subliminal – A book review
by Chetan Parikh
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Subliminal – A book review

Carl Jung wrote about “the invisible roots of our conscious thoughts” and of certain events that remained “below the threshold of consciousness. They have happened, but they have been absorbed subliminally.”

The modern study of the workings of the unconscious, often called the “new unconscious”, is distinguished from the Freudian unconscious (“hot and wet; it seethed with lust and anger; it was hallucinatory, primitive and irrational”). The new unconscious is “kinder and gentler than that and more reality bound” arising due to the architecture of the brain rather than being subject to Freudian motivational forces like repression. The inaccessibility of the new unconscious is not an unhealthy defense mechanism but completely normal.

This superbly written book is about the natural relegation of the many processes of perception, memory, attention, learning and judgment to brain structures outside conscious awareness.

The new unconscious, in many ways similar to the System 2 thinking (“fast and automatic”) of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and subject to “fluency effects” (“if the form of information is difficult to assimilitate, that alters our judgment about the substance of that information”) is leading to serious challenges of classical economic thought. Rationality does not square well with unconscious desires and motivations and is thus ignored by traditional economists and thus leads to logical absurdities because of wrong assumptions of human behavior. The unconscious mind dominates mental activity and any other assumption is simply wrong.

Some fascinating experiments are littered throughout the book – on “binocular rivalry”, “blind spots”, “phonemic restoration” (where the unconscious fills in the blanks when there is incomplete information in order to construct a useful picture of reality), “memory errors” (a good memory for the general gist of events, but a bad one for details, unremembered  details get inadvertently filled up even by well-intentioned people, and the result is a strong belief in the memories thus built up), “memory editing” (subjects maintained the story’s  general form, but dropped some details and added others, so that the story became shorter, simpler and smoother), “false memories” (vivid and specific “memories” of things that have not happened), “hurt feelings” (the pain of social rejection and the pain of physical injury are equivalent), “theory of the mind” (which occurs all the time in the stock markets and which Lord Keynes called a “beauty contest” where “second order”, “third order” and even higher order thinking is done), “face effects” (or judging people by “their covers” – voice, looks etc.), “categorical or stereotype thinking” (mentally absorbing the categories defined by the society in which we live which is a form of the what behavioral economists call the “representative heuristic”), “in-group and out-group” thinking, (“group norms” determine the perceptions of each of the members of the “in-group”).

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has stated that there are only two ways to get at the truth – the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer. Scientists gather evidence, look for regularities, form theories explaining their behavior, and test them. Attorneys begin with a conclusion they want to convince others of and then seek evidence that supports it, while attempting to discredit evidence that doesn’t. The human mind is designed to be both a scientist and an attorney – consciously seeking objective truth, but unconsciously being an impassioned advocate for what it wants to believe. This is what creates our worldview. According to the author, Leonard Mlodinow (who is a scientist, not a psychologist), “the brain is a decent scientist, but an absolutely outstanding lawyer.”