Belief in the power of the unconscious has waxed and waned in popularity since psychology became a recognized field. Sigmund Freud might come to mind with the mention of “the unconscious.” He spoke of it as a stewing collection of repressed memories and antisocial urges. For a long time, the notion of the unconscious was discredited. Now, recent studies in psychology have pointed to subliminal influences as a major driver — of our daily perceptions, memories and emotions. Leonard Mlodinow’s newest book, “Subliminal,” discusses how the unconscious workings of our minds shape almost all our thoughts and actions.
The book’s first section explains the “two-tiered” brain: the ancient “lower brain” shared with our evolutionary ancestors, and the “conscious” brain we use everyday to think logically, make decisions and do all the things that make us human.
Our sensory perceptions are quite arbitrary. Our visual system, for example, which seems like it should be fairly straightforward, contains several features that skew our interpretation of the world. Take “the blind spot:” It’s a physical phenomenon that results from the way the eyeball connects to the brain. There’s a wire that connects the retina to the brain, and this creates a dead zone in your vision. So why aren’t we all walking around with a gap in our sight? Our brains make up for this blind spot by filling it in based on the context of our surroundings.
Our memories are also shockingly faulty. Or, at least, creative. A study that required participants to recall a story over a series of months found that not one subject remembered the story correctly. Every subject omitted certain aspects of the story over time — and they filled in these gaps with their own additions.
Another more recent study yielded related results. Pyschologist Ulric Neisser asked a group of Emory University students to write their account of hearing about the Challenger space shuttle crash the morning after it happened. About three years later, he contacted the students again and asked them to recount that experience. No one retold their original story, and a quarter of the students were completely wrong. The students still believed in the accuracy of their newer memories and didn’t seem to believe their old records, even though they had written them themselves. Said one student, “Yes, that’s my handwriting — but I still remember it the other way!”
It kind of makes you wonder: if such a supposedly “big” national event like the Challenger explosion was misremembered, what other, smaller memories of ours are altered or completely wrong?
Our brains, specifically our prefrontal cortexes, respond to categories. We’ve evolved to process information more efficiently by placing different things into different categories. Such a tendency likely helped early humans survive. As Mlodinow explains, “If we hadn’t evolved to operate that way, if our brains treated everything we encountered as an individual, we might be eaten by a bear while still deciding whether this particular furry creature is as dangerous as the one that ate Uncle Bob.”
Categories also help aid our memories. If you give someone a grocery list, and then later make him recite it from memory, he’s unlikely to remember a good part of it. But if you group the items into categories — fruit, vegetables and dairy, for example — that person is much more likely to remember more of the list.
This is all interesting, but I’m sure you can think of less-benevolent categorizing our brains undertake. Racial, gender and ethnic discrimination are some of the bad “side effects” of a brain that naturally wants to put a label on everything.
There’s no doubt that discrimination exists. But what about unconscious bias? It’s more insidious and harder to address than its blatant counterpart. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex automatically regulates our evaluation of fellow humans, says Mlodinow. Studies have shown that damage to this region eliminates unconscious gender stereotyping. The author doesn’t go into more detail about this study though, and I would have liked to hear more about it.
Mlodinow also mentions that unconscious biases can be “overcome with effort,” but doesn’t offer evidence to support this statement or explain exactly how it can be achieved. For practical reasons, more information on the subject would have been desirable.
But Mlodinow does a lot of things right. He tackles a brainy subject with aplomb and (sometimes corny) humor. Otherwise abstract topics are made accessible and readable. But I was still left wanting to know more about how we can turn our unconscious minds to our advantage. For example, how can we specifically work to end discrimination and intolerance? Strength of will and practice play a role, but what else can we do? I know this is largely a social question, but we need some insight and support from people like Mlodniow to point us in the right direction.