Subliminal Effects

The hidden role of your unconscious.

Posted Apr 24, 2012

When I was in graduate school I used to phone her around eight every Thursday night. Then one Thursday I didn’t. Most parents would have concluded that I forgot, or maybe that I finally “got a life,” and was out for the evening. But my mother had a different interpretation. Starting around nine she began to call my apartment asking for me. My roommate apparently didn’t mind the first four or five calls, but by midnight, my mother was accusing my roommate of covering up my recent death. "Why lie about it?" my mother asked. I am going to find out.

Most children would be embarrassed that their mother, a person who has known them intimately their whole life, would think it more plausible to believe that they had been killed than that they had been out on a date. But I had seen my mother exhibit such behavior before: My mother’s mind worked differently from that of anyone else I knew. Today I understand why, even though my mother herself does not recognize it. Decades earlier, her psyche had been restructured to view situations within a context that most of us could never imagine.

It all started in 1939, when my mother was 16. A short while after her own mother had died from an abdominal cancer, she came home from school one day and found that her father had been taken by the Nazis. My mother and her sister, Sabina, were soon also taken away, to a forced labor camp, which her sister did not survive. Virtually overnight, my mother’s life had been transformed from that of a well-loved and well-cared-for teenager in a well-to-do family, to an orphaned, hated, and starving slave laborer.

After her liberation my mother emigrated, married, settled in a peaceful neighborhood in Chicago, and had a stable and safe lower-middle-class family existence. She no longer had any rational reason to fear the sudden loss of everything dear to her, and yet that fear drove her interpretation of everyday events for the rest of her life.

My mother’s fearful interpretations had become automatic to her, not consciously arrived at. Just as we all understand spoken language without any conscious application of linguistic rules, so too did she understand the world’s message to her without any awareness that her early experience had forever reshaped her expectations.

We all have implicit frames of reference — with luck, less extreme — that produce habitual thinking and behavior. Our experiences and actions always seem to be rooted in conscious thought, and like my mother, we can find it difficult to accept that there are hidden forces at work behind the scenes. But though those forces may be invisible, they still exert a powerful pull.

In recent years, a revolution has occurred in our thinking about the unconscious. Today scientists can go beyond talking to my mother, and guessing how her experiences affected her. Today they can actually pinpoint the brain alterations that result from traumatic early experiences like hers, and understand how such experiences cause physical changes in stress-sensitive brain regions. In future blog entries I will talk about the modern concept of the unconscious, and how the way we experience the world is largely driven by the mind’s subliminal processes.

Adapted from: Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behavior  Copyright Leonard Mlodinow 2012