Subliminal Cues Impact Motivation, Endurance, and Longevity

People of all ages benefit from positive subliminal visual cues.

Posted Dec 10, 2014

Subliminal stimuli happens so quickly that it is literally "below threshold" of your conscious awareness. Visual stimuli that is flashed for just a few milliseconds is absorbed at a subconscious level before your conscious mind has time to process and interpret the stimuli or visual cue. 

The concept of subliminal messaging first took hold in the public consciousness after the 1957 publication of a book titled The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. In his book, Packard describes a new type of "motivational research" that was geared towards marketing techniques advertisers could use to influence consumers to purchase their products. 

During the summer of 1957, James Vicary conducted a dubious experiment at a movie theater during a screening of the film Picnic. During the screening of the movie Vicary randomly flashed words like "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat Popcorn!” for 1/3000th of a second from the projection booth. He claimed that displaying these subliminal cues led to an 18.1% increase in Coca-Cola sales, and a 57.8% jump in popcorn sales at the concession stand. 

Although the results of this study were unsubstantiated, in 1974 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) banned subliminal advertising from radio and television broadcasting. Even though, the policy makers at the FCC weren't 100% sure that subliminal techniques had an effect they stated that, "whether effective or not," they were "contrary to the public interest," and that any station employing subliminal messages risked losing its broadcast license.

Forty years later, neuroscientific research confirms that the FCC probably made the right decision. Recent studies have found that subliminal cues greatly impact motivation, endurance, and longevity. 

Subliminal Messages Improve Athletic Motivation and Performance

Two new studies have found that effort-based decision-making during cognitive tasks can be altered by non-conscious visual cues relating to perception of effort and potential motivation.

The first new study was conducted by Professor Samuele Marcora at the University of Kent in collaboration with colleagues at Bangor University. Their December 2014 study, “Non-Conscious Visual Cues Related to Affect and Action Alter Perception of Effort and Endurance Performance,” was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

In this experiment, the researchers flashed subliminal cues—such as action-related words or happy vs. sad faces—on a digital screen while endurance athletes were exercising on a stationary bicycle.

The subliminal words and faces appeared on a digital screen for less than 0.02 seconds and were masked by other visual stimuli making them unidentifiable to the participant's conscious mind.

When the athletes were presented with positive visual cues like "go" and "energy" or were shown happy faces they were able to exercise significantly longer compared to those who were shown sad faces or words linked to inaction.

This research is the first to demonstrate that subliminal visual cues can impact athletic performance. Additionally, the researchers found that the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) can be affected by subliminal cues when you exercise. Positive subliminal cues will make your workout seem easier. 

I learned this personally through trial and error as an ultra-endurance athlete and am excited to see this new research proven in a laboratory. When I was competing in ultra-endurance events I created a laundry list of subliminal triggers and cues that primed my unconscious mind for peak performance.

Professor Marcora is currently working on ways that this research can be utilized by athletes to improve their performance during competitions and training. In the near future, there is a possiblity that 'smart glasses' like Google glass could stream positive subliminal visual cues directly into an athlete's eyes.

Subliminal Strengthening With Visual Cues Works at Any Age

The second recent study on the power of subliminal messaging was conducted at Yale University. The researchers at the Yale School of Public Health found that older individuals who were subliminally exposed to positive visual cues and stereotypes about aging showed improved physical functioning that lasted for several weeks,

The October 2014 study, “Subliminal Strengthening: Improving Older Individuals' Physical Function Over Time With an Implicit-Age-Stereotype Intervention” was published in the journal Psychological Science.

For this study the researchers used a unique method to examine whether exposure to positive age stereotypes could weaken negative age stereotypes and lead to more vitality and healthier outcomes.

In a press release lead researcher Becca Levy, associate professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Science Division at Yale said, "The challenge we had in this study was to enable the participants to overcome the negative age stereotypes which they acquire from society, as in everyday conversations and television comedies. The study's successful outcome suggests the potential of directing subliminal processes toward the enhancement of physical function."

The study concluded that the intervention influenced physical function through a chain reaction of positive effects. First, it strengthened the subjects' positive age stereotypes, which in turn strengthened their positive self-perceptions, which then improved their physical function.

Interestingly, the impact of subliminal/implicit interventions was found to be greater than the impact of conscious/explicit interventions. 

The Impact of Subliminal Cues Begins During Infancy

Recently, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post, “The Whites of Your Eyes Convey Subconscious Cues," based on an October 2014 study from the University of Virginia and Max Planck Institute. The researchers found that the ability to respond to subconscious eye cues typically begins to develop during infancy around the age of seven months.

The researchers found that the infants' brains responded differently depending on the expression suggested by the eyes they were viewing. The infants only viewed the eye images for about 50 milliseconds—which is actually much less time than needed for an infant of this age to interpret the social cues conveyed by the sclera.

Grossmann concluded, "Their brains clearly responded to social cues conveyed through the eyes, indicating that even without conscious awareness, human infants are able to detect subtle social cues. The existence of such brain mechanisms in infants likely provides a vital foundation for the development of social interactive skills in humans."

What Part of Your Brain Picks Up on Subliminal Visual Cues?

Cerebellum in red.

It is well known that the cerebellum is an information processor. Our neocortex [the largest part of the brain, responsible for much higher processing] does not receive information unfiltered. There are critical steps that have to happen between when external information is detected by our brain and when it reaches the neural cortex. At some point, you learn that smiling is nice because Mom smiles at you. We have all these associations we make in early life because we don't arrive knowing that a smile is nice. In autism, something in that process goes wrong and one thing could be that sensory information is not processed correctly in the cerebellum.

Physiogonomy: One More Reason to Put On a Happy Face!

In my book The Athlete’s Way (St. Martin’s Press) from 2007 I created a split-brain model and training program that made the cerebrum the seat of our conscious mind and the cerebellum the seat of the unconscious mind. I know that this is oversimplified, but as a general visual and dual-pronged approach I've found it to be an effective training model and intervention in life and sport.

As an athlete, I generally tried to have a constant smile smeared across my face because it made me go faster. I learned early on as an athlete that if I allowed the muscles in my face and eyes to become stressed or negative that the facial feedback loop created a subconscious and very real perception of negativity that would drain my energy. I described it this way in my book:

You can enter the facial feedback loop from the front end, called top-down processing, by consciously deciding to put a smile on your face. In doing so you put the cart before the horse and trick the visceral receptors in your lower brain that associate smiling with being happy. Or, you can enter it from the bottom-up. Something visceral in the cerebellum, can fill you with unconscious joy and a smile will spread across your face. Either way, the loop creates a chain reaction and snowball effect. Your body will send out a signal that all systems are go and that you are happy... Neuroscientists have found that when you interpret another’s facial expressions their emotions are read by your emotional brain. These signals bypass the conscious up mind and go straight to the intuitive brain.

It's Not All About Smiley Faces: Positive Subliminal Cues Can Be Gritty

"The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" by Rembrandt circa 1633. (Public Domain)

There is one important caveat about positive visual cues and the potential backlash of becoming a Pollyanna. Prevailing in life, sports, and competition is about much more than just smiley faces—you need lots of tricks up your sleeve. It's always better to be a "pragmatic optimist" than a Pollyanna, on-and-off the court.

As an athlete I also learned that when the harsh reality of things like: running through Death Valley in July; biking through the lava fields in Kona; or swimming in the breeding ground of Great White sharks in South Africa became overwhelming that I had to consciously romanticize the odyssey. I did this by thinking of it as an epic quest and attaching visualizations along with an intellectual, and personalized cerebral narrative.

Joseph Campell's book The Power of Myth was a valuable tool that I used to help me deconstruct the stages of my personal monomyth or "Hero's Journey" and to identify the archetypes as I set off to unknown continents around the world to compete. Using the Power of Myth was a very conscious and cerebral approach but also had a subconscious, cerebellar underpinning that I believe tapped into what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious. 

When I was competing internationally I would always take with me some type of Talisman or magic elixir—which was usually in the form of a specific essential oil that I had encoded through classical conditioning to become an implicit positive trigger during my training. Lifting my wrist to my nose and smelling this scent subconsciously transported part of my psyche back to my home in Manhattan where I felt safe.

I'd also make sure to have an anthem that I had trained with that I could hum during the competion. I'd have an arsenal of mantras and prayers that I could recite and images that I could visualize and conjure up for a flash to fortify my resilience while 'facing tempests and slaying dragons.' 

My father once gave me a laminated copy of Rembrandt's painting the Storm on the Sea of Galillee which was his favorite painting. I kept a small copy of this painting on my fridge along with other images that were touchstones and that I would look at consciously or subliminally everyday in my kitchen.

Visualizing these images when I was competing in far off lands during Ironman competitions would make me feel safe and sound on a visceral level even when the reality of the situation was terrifying. Even now, when I face a challenge in my day-to-day life out on the street I'll flash these images in my mind's eye for a millisecond and it triggers a subliminal cue that I can weather any storm and will survive. 

Over the decades that I competed in Ironman triathlons and other ulra-endurance competitions I got better at knowing how to "give the scene" what it needed either consciously or subconciously.

For example, If I was far from shore in an unnerving open water swim and started to hear the John Willams' JAWS soundtrack bubbling up in the back of my head .... I would consciously flip the subliminal imagery by humming Cherish by Madonna and kicking in rhythm to the melody of that pop song while pretending that I had a mermaid tail and was swimming in Malibu with Tony Ward.

Constantly taking inventory and adapting my mindset to be serious but also having a sense of humor kept me entertained as an endurance athlete while consciously and subconsciously keeping my fear at bay. These are methods that anyone can use in sport or life when facing a daunting challenge.

Conclusion: You Can Optimize Your Conscious and Subconscious Minds by Targeting both Implicit and Explicit Interventions

As an ultra-endurance athlete I always took a dual-pronged approach. I relied on conscious and explicit “self-talk” to keep my inner dialogue positive and my athletic mindset tough. But, I also learned how-to use subliminal visual cues, olfaction, mantras, and music to encode triggers for non-conscious cues that would lead to easier perceptions of exertion and increased endurance.

This is how I broke the Guinness World Record for running 153.76 miles non-stop on a treadmill in 24 hours. With some practice, anyone can use these techniques to achieve a lifespan of personal bests. The latest research shows that using subliminal visual cues is a universal tool that can be utilized by people of all ages and walks of life.

If you’d like to read more on these topics check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Photo credits:

  • Pixabay
  • Wikimedia Commons