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Sandeep Gautam


Your Unconscious Calls The Shots

A book review of 'Subliminal' by Leonard Mlodinow

There is slew of new books in the market that claim that our unconscious calls the shots most of the times and our conscious is, most of the time, a post hoc rationaliser.  Timothy Wilson, Daniel Wegner, David Eagleman have all written about this, though at times extending the argument for the power of unconscious to unwarranted territories, like claiming the death of free will , or arguing against the notion of culpability for crime, if there is even a slight (unconscious) neural basis to behaviour.

When reading ‘Subliminal’ I was very wary that Leonard Mlodinow, basically being from a physics background, whether would be able to do justice to such a complex and at times, contended subject, while keeping away from extrapolating from ‘grand design’ theories to analogous concepts in psychology.  However, Leonard Mlodinow, not only lives up to the challenge, but comes out with flying colours. His is a dispassionate account of how unconscious is a force to reckon with in our daily lives, without taking an overtly ideological stand or blowing up the importance of these findings.

He has done his homework well and most of the research he cites, though not new to someone well read in psychology,  does support his arguments and provides ample support to the influential and sometimes decisive role that our unconscious plays in our lives. The studies though familiar, are sometimes presented in a new context, lending them a new significance.

He also does not stick to just one metaphor/ interpretation for the unconscious/ conscious tug-of-war- the high road/ low road or the system 2/ system 1 thinking interpretation. When it comes to self-concepts, he acknowledges for example that there is a decent scientist in us, looking for facts and then forming beliefs using our deliberative and conscious faculties; however he convincingly argues (pun intended)  that there is a better lawyer in us, that argues for a favoured point of view based around prior beliefs and gather selective evidence and looks for poking holes in contrary evidence.

Similarly, while the battle between unconscious and conscious is sometimes pitted as that between emotion and cognition, he steers clear of this false dichotomy- as a matter of fact in a chapter devoted to feelings, he shows how emotions themselves may be (cognitive) appraisals of physiological states and the cues from environment, all combined together subliminally to give rise to feelings whose origins we have sometimes no clue whatsoever of.  

 He also touches upon many other subjects like our implicit attitudes and biases and prejudices that happen mostly unconsciously, as also the fallibility of our memory.  Touching upon concepts like blind sight, the placebo effect, the ‘above average’ effect etc, there can be no doubt that we have a very powerful unconscious that asserts its effects whenever given a chance to, and mostly to our benefits.

Subliminal is an easy read, and if you were not already aware of the importance and significance of unconscious mind, will make you pause and think and possibly alter the way you see yourself and the world forever. It doesn’t extrapolate or give a slant to the findings, and seems to be free of any ideological baggage. Coming from a physicist, it’s a commendable work of achievement.  I just hope that people within the field (psychologists/ social scientists) are as dispassionate about their subjects as an ‘outsider’ like Leonard is.


About the Author

Sandeep Gautam is a software developer and science writer at The Mouse Trap.