Every aspect of our lives plays out in two versions: one conscious, which we are constantly aware of, and the other unconscious, which remains hidden from us. Over the past two decades, researchers have developed remarkable new tools for probing the subliminal processes of our unconscious mind. This explosion of research has led to a sea change in our understanding of how the mind affects the way we live. As a result, scientists are becoming increasingly convinced that how 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.
As neuroscientists have probed the human brain, they have catalogued a collection of many parallel modules, with complex interactions, most of which operate outside consciousness. Our subliminal mental processes operate outside awareness because they arise in these portions of our mind that are inaccessible to our conscious self; their inaccessibility is due to the architecture of the brain, rather than because they have been subject to Freudian motivational forces like repression.
We all make personal, financial and business decisions, confident that we have properly weighed all the important factors and acted accordingly - and that we know how we came to those decisions. But since we know only our conscious influences, we have only partial information. As a result, our view of ourselves and our motivations, and of society, is like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. We fill in blanks and make guesses, but the truth about us is far more complex and subtle than that which can be understood as the straightforward calculation of conscious and rational minds.
We perceive, we remember our experiences, we make judgments, we act - and in all of these endeavors we are influenced by factors that we aren't aware of. The truth is that our unconscious minds are active, purposeful, and independent. Hidden they may be, but their effects are anything but, for they play a critical role in shaping the way our conscious minds experience and respond to the world.
Leonard Mlodinow is the author of Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior [Pantheon, $25.95]
Here are some examples of the power of the subconscious mind: