iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Debra Ollivier


Leonard Mlodinow On Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

Posted: 06/07/2012 10:22 am

Leonard Mlodinow is a man at home with big ideas. Really big ideas. A physicist, author and professor, Mlodinow has spent much of the past few decades exploring life's most complicated questions: What's the nature of the universe? How does the human mind work? Did Darwin go wrong? What is the role of randomness in our lives? Is there a grand design in the universe?

Mlodinow's passions have taken him to the crossroads of science and spirituality and spawned a host of extraordinary books, three of which were New York Times bestsellers: War of the Worldviews: Science vs Spirituality, co-authored with Deepak Chopra; The Grand Design, one of two books co-authored with Stephen Hawking, and The Drunkard's Walk: The Story of Randomness and Its Role In Our Lives.

If Mlodinow is a man of Big Ideas, however, he's also a man of many lives -- one whose career has not necessarily gone from point A to point B. Raised by holocaust survivors, Mlodinow began his college education at Brandeis University before dropping out and traveling to Israel to live on a kibbutz. He later returned to the U.S., earned a doctorate in theoretical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and began studying things that most mere mortals cannot comprehend (axiomatic quantum field theory and non-linear dielectric media, for starters).

He later left the academic world for Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter for 10 years before changing careers yet again to design and produce computer games, an endeavor that brought him numerous awards, including the National Association of Parenting Publications Gold Medal -- twice. This led to a position heading up software development and math education for Scholastic, and writing popular science and children's books. In 2005, he returned to teaching and writing books.

Summing up his career changes in a recent New York Times essay, Mlodinow wrote: "When we're in college, we think about our future as a direct line from now to then, from here to there. You might get an internship at a financial services firm, then become an assistant, and gradually move up until someday you're the boss. That's a fine life's path. But if you look at the careers of many successful people, you'll find that their route is often far more sinuous. And if you look at happy people, you'll find even fewer who traveled a straight line."

Mlodinow's own sinuous path has led to his latest book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. It delves into how the unconscious mind shapes our experiences of the world, for better or for worse. Everything we experience or choose -- from our political persuasions to how much we tip a waiter -- is predicated in large part by the subtle, unnoticeable perceptions and misperceptions that are part of our unconscious mental landscape. With great wit and intelligence, Mlodinow takes us on a sweeping tour of this landscape and the latest revelations in neuroscience.

Huff/Post50 recently caught up with Mlodinow to discuss his new book and many careers.

You've tackled some of life's most complicated questions. What motivated you to write Subliminal?

It was a good companion to my previous book The Drunkard's Walk, which was all about randomness and how we misunderstand a lot of what goes on around us. Subliminal is a similar book about your inner life -- the inner emotional and social experiences that you can't really understand if you don't understand the unconscious mind.

What experiences in your own past motivated your interest in this subject?

I've always loved science, as far back as I can remember. I was very, very curious about how everything worked: the world, the physical universe, chemistry, law. So it was only natural to be curious about how our mind works.

And, of course, there are all sorts of things floating around in our subliminal minds that come from our pasts.

Yes, and our pasts definitely affect us on a subliminal level. I like to use the analogy of vision to describe how our unconscious might create reality. When you look out into the world, you see what seems to be a clear and 3D image of it. It seems real to you, but it's not really real. It's not literally what's out there. The data that falls onto your retina is very sparse data and the picture of the world literally put together from that data would be very fuzzy. It wouldn't be very useful for navigating the world.

Yet we perceive something very clear, and that's because our unconscious mind is doing all of this processing. It does it instantaneously and without any effort, so we just think that what we see out there is real. Similar things happen in our social judgments and in the way we perceive everything in the world. In my book, I tell a story about when I didn't call my mother at our scheduled time. Her illusion was that I must have been killed, because her context was that bad things happen. She viewed things this way. When she looked at other people and things, she always seemed to take a dark view based on her past experience. That's a lot like our optical illusions.

What other things insinuate themselves into our subliminal minds?

One thing that feeds into the way you experience the social world is your mood -- and one thing that affects your mood is the weather. Researchers did a study and found that the Stock Market goes up much more on sunny days than on rainy days. So even though these stock brokers are going to work thinking that they're making rational judgments, those judgments are very much affected by their mood and the weather. Another example is when you go buy wine. You think you're picking the wine according to the origin, grape or price -- various conscious factors. But one unconscious factor is your mood or your emotions.

Likewise in England, researchers did a study where they played German and French music alternately on a wine aisle where they had a mixture of German and French wines. On the day they played the German music, two-thirds of the people bought German wine. On the day that French music was played, they bought French wine.

It's unsettling to think that such little things can subliminally affect our choices. It reminds me of the brouhaha about subliminal messages that are presumably embedded in advertising.

That kind of unconscious manipulation in advertising doesn't really work. It was like seeing Jesus' face in the clouds. A lot of those stories about hidden messages that convince you to buy a different brand are pretty much bogus and a hoax.

But the unconscious mind can still trip us up and create subjective notions of reality that border on magical thinking, can't it?

It can trip you up, but it's just like your eyes: Your unconscious mind makes these pictures of the world so you can walk around and not bump into walls. And most of the time this works just fine. It's the same way in our social world. There's a reason we have emotions and there's a reason that emotions affect our decision-making on an unconscious level and really help us. For instance, touching is how all primates communicate and form bonds with each other. Non-human primates spend hours a day grooming each other. And with humans, touching is also important. It's a way to form bonds and connect in modern society. But you can also speed up the use of conscious purposes once you're aware of that, and it can be manipulated.

For instance, for one study in France researchers hired a handsome, young Frenchman to stand on street corners and proposition single women who walked by. To half of them, he gave a light, half-second touch to the arm or the elbow. He didn't touch the other half. And the success rate in getting phone numbers basically doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent with those who were touched. Waiters increased their tips in a similar experiment from 14-1/2 percent to 17 percent and so on. You can say that's good or bad. You can say that the waiter is manipulating you or that you were touched and it convinced you to do something you didn't want to do. On some level, you might look at it that way, but in general, that's how we human beings bond with each other.

You were curious enough to stop science all together, change careers, and become a Hollywood screenwriter. A scientist in Hollywood -- that's not an ordinary pairing. How did that happen?

I always liked movies so I started writing for Hollywood, but my day job was physics. And when I finally started getting work in Hollywood, I thought they wanted me because I was a physicist. But that really wasn't true at all. One day I pitched a story. I thought I was really cool because my pitch was filled with real science in it. When I was done, all the producers sat around looking at me. There was this silence. Then my boss looked at me and said, "Shut up, you egghead." I realized that they'd actually hired me because they liked the MacGyver script that I'd written. It had nothing to do with me being a scientist.

And then you had yet another career change?

Yes, I went into computer games because those were very pioneering times . It just before Windows came into being. I stayed in the gaming world for about 10 years. Then I went to Scholastic in New York to develop a math education curriculum. Then I came back and now I write books and teach at Cal Tech.

Have you always been fearless of change and simply had faith your decisions to change?

Yes, pretty much. I always assumed things would work out. And I've never given up my love of science.

Check out the slideshow below for seven things your subconscious mind controls.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Faces

    Faces play a special role in human behavior. As a result there is a discrete part of the brain - the fusiform face area - that is used to analyze faces, and much of the processing is outside our awareness. Look at these photos of President Barack Obama. The top pair looks like two upside-down shots of the President, but the photo on the left of the right-side up pair looks horribly distorted. In reality the bottom pair is identical to the top pair, except that the top photos have been flipped. Your brain devotes special attention (and neural real estate) to faces - but not upside down faces, since we rarely encounter those, except when performing headstands in a yoga class. That's why we are far better at detecting the distortion on the face that is right-side-up.

  • Love

    <em>How do I love thee?</em> Elizabeth Barrett Browning felt she could count the ways, but chances are, she couldn't accurately list the reasons. Today we are beginning to be able to do just that - and the answer is surprising. For example, we have a natural subliminal affinity for - and bias toward - anything having to do with ourselves. Have a look at the following table. It shows who has been marrying whom in three states of the Southeastern United States. Listed along the horizontal and vertical axes are the five most common U.S. surnames. The numbers in the table represent how many marriages occurred between bride and groom with the corresponding names. The largest numbers, by far, occur along the diagonal - that is, Smiths marry other Smiths and so on.

  • Sight

    The science of the mind has been remade by a tool that emerged in the 1990s, functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. fMRI offers 3-dimensional pictures of the working brain, inside and out, mapping to a resolution of about a millimeter, the level of activity throughout. To get an idea of what fMRI can do, consider this: scientists can now use data collected from your brain to reconstruct an image of what you are looking at. Look at the pictures below. In each case, the image on the left is the actual image a subject was gazing at, and the image on the right is the computer's reconstruction, based on the fMRI's electromagnetic readings of the subject's brain activity.

  • Touch

    We all know how it effects us when a lover strokes our skin, but studies show that even a brief, light touch that we hardly notice - and quickly forget - can exert a powerful unconscious influence on our behavior toward the person who touched us. Touching has been found to increase the fraction of single women in a night club who would agree to a request to dance, the number of people agreeing to sign a petition, and the average tip given servers in a restaurant. We are now beginning to understand how touch works its magic: a particular kind of nerve fiber in people's skin - especially in the face and arms - transmits the pleasantness of social touch. Those nerve fibers are connected directly to areas of the brain associated with emotion.

  • Brand Preferences

    Pepsi consistently beats Coke in blind taste tests, although people seem to prefer Coke when they know what they are drinking, an effect called the "Pepsi paradox". New brain imaging studies found that an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, or VMPC, is the seat of the good feelings we experience when we contemplate a familiar brand-name product. And so in 2007, researchers recruited a group of participants whose brain scans showed significant VMPC damage, and also a group whose VMPC was healthy. Those with healthy brains indeed preferred Coke when they knew what they were drinking. But those who had damage to their VMPC - their brain's "brand appreciation" module - preferred Pepsi, just as they did in the blind taste tests. Apparently it is the unconscious warm and fuzzy feeling people have toward the brand Coke that explains the Pepsi paradox.

  • Social Preferences

    The experience of feeling socially connected to others starts very early in life. Even 6-month-olds make judgments based on what they observe of social behavior. In one study infants watched as a "climber", a disk of wood with large eyes glued onto its circular "face," started at the bottom of a hill, and repeatedly tried but failed to make its way to the top. After a while, a "helper," a triangle with similar eyes glued on, would approach from further downhill and help the climber with an upward push. Other times a square "hinderer" would approach from uphill and shove the circular disk back down. The infants, unaffected and uninvolved bystanders, copped an attitude toward the hinderer squares: when offered a chance to play with the objects, they avoided the squares, and chose the helper triangles. <em><a href="" target="_hplink">Flickr photo courtesy of Pink Sherbet Photography</a></em>

  • Social Judgments

    Vested interest plays a powerful unconscious role in determining our "sincere" social judgments. In one experiment researchers randomly assigned volunteers to the role of plaintiff or defendant in a reenactment of a lawsuit. Both sides received documents regarding a real case involving an injured motorcyclist and the driver who hit him. The volunteers were paired up and asked to negotiate their own version of a settlement. They were also offered a cash bonus if they could guess - within $5000 - what the judge had actually awarded the plaintiff. Could they ignore their assigned role as advocates, and make an objective guess? No: On average, the volunteers assigned to represent the plaintiff's estimates were double those made by those assigned to represent the defendant.


Follow Debra Ollivier on Twitter: