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Meet Your Subliminal Self

by James Patrick Kelly

not the unconscious

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What’s your story? You have one, of course. We all do. But what’s interesting about your story and my story and your Uncle Bob’s is that at best they reflect only part of our lives. We all have too much personal history, some of which we’ve forgotten and some of which points in different directions from the story we tell ourselves. In order to include everything, we’d have to relive our lives! So, for the sake of coherence, we cobble select events, most real, but some imagined or misinterpreted, and weave them into narratives in which we are the protagonists.

Speaking for myself only, I know this instinctively and rarely lose sleep over all the stuff that gets left out of the Jim Kelly story. I like to think that I have a pretty firm handle on who I am. But I’m a writer and part of my job is to spend time rummaging through my experiences so I can reshape them into made up stories about fictional people. When I do look inward, I’m often surprised at what the light of introspection reveals in the murky corners of my brain. But introspection is an limited tool of my consciousness and, as such, is inadequate to probe the deepest shadows. It can’t easily illuminate the hidden cognitive processes that enable me to brush my teeth, spot a squirrel in a tree or remember my fourth grade teacher’s name. I might call these hidden processes my unconscious, except for Sigmund Freud https://www.simplypsychology.org/Sigmund-Freud.html. His theory https://www.simplypsychology.org/Sigmund-Freud.html#un that we are all subject to a secret stew of phobias and complexes and repressed desires has been largely discredited https://www.thecut.com/2017/09/sigmud-freud-making-of-an-illusion-book.html. However, that’s what most people think of when they read the phrase the unconscious. But credit Freud with the insight that there is a vast and essential part of our cognition that we can’t directly access.

Indirect access, however, is another matter.

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We interrupt this column for a brief autobiographical aside: Last fall I had a chance meeting with the scientist Leonard Moldinow https://leonardmlodinow.com at a science fiction convention in China, of all places. I was in the midst of a lively breakfast conversation with some other writers at a long communal table. A stranger at the far end deftly inserted himself into our conversation with a sensible question and then with several insightful comments. I didn’t recognize his name but when asked, Leonard acknowledged that he was a theoretical physicist and a writer. Had he published any books? Why yes, a few, he admitted modestly, all non-fiction, including two with his friend Stephen Hawking http://www.hawking.org.uk/the-grand-design.html. (Googling Leonard later I discovered he has written eight books, five of which have been best sellers.) And what was his connection to science fiction? Just that he’d worked in the writers’ room of Star Trek: The Next Generation https://www.startrek.com/shows/star-trek-the-next-generation as a writer and editor.


At this point I was pretty much star­struck, but I managed to stammer out one last question, “Which of your books should I read first?” When he asked whether I’d be more interested in hard science or social science, my Italian writer and editor pal, Francesco Verso https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesco_Verso, who was sitting next to me, piped up, “Social science for Jim.” So Leonard recommended his Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior https://www.amazon.com/Subliminal-Your-Unconscious-Rules-Behavior-ebook/dp/B005X0K8CM, which turns out to have won the 2013 PEN/E.O. Wilson Award for Literary Science Writing https://pen.org/pen-eo-wilson-prize-literary-science-writing/.

And thus a column was born. Enough aside, let’s continue!

It’s hard to summarize Leonard’s wonderful and disquieting book, which gathers research into our subliminal selves, so go out and buy it already! It’s about the variety of unconscious behaviors that are “automatic, and occur without intention, awareness, and control.” These are the things that we all think and do even though we don’t understand why. And these behaviors are really, really hard to change. You can get a taste of the research Leonard presents by clicking over to a talk he gave at Google in 2012 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJ-IfVHJH58. But for now, let’s just concentrate on three propositions guaranteed to shake your sense of who you are.

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You don’t perceive reality, but rather reconstruct a version of reality. Take vision, for example. We like to think that our eyes are like cameras, and yes, the lens of the eye sends a camera-like image to the photoreceptors on our retinas, which crunch that information, pass it to neurons, which transfer it to the cortex in our brains. Our cognitive interface hacks the signals into our version of what’s out there. You know this because you’ve been fooled by optical illusions https://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/stories/10-optical-illusions-will-blow-your-mind. As it turns out, natural selection has created a cognitive interface that values constructing a fast-and-dirty version of reality over an accurate one. This may seem counterintuitive, but check this TED Talk by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman https://www.ted.com/talks/donald_hoffman_do_we_see_reality_as_it_is?language=en. As a result of the way our brains hack our perceptions, we tend to see what we expect to see, which explains the famous Monkey Business Illusion https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY, in which an experimenter asked subjects to watch a video of a group of six students passing a basketball among them and count the number of passes. At one point in the video a woman in a gorilla suit walks through the group. Half of the subjects failed to see her. And if you’re certain you would have spotted the gorilla, make sure to click the link above—you may be in for a surprise!

Many of your memories are inaccurate, or downright wrong. In order to remember something, you have to be paying attention. Watch out for stray gorillas! But as we have seen, you can’t notice everything, so even if you are paying attention, your most important perceptions are being framed, compressed, and filtered before they are passed into short term memory. Research tells us that storage there is limited; memories decay within twenty to thirty seconds and there is room for perhaps seven to nine items. The mechanisms of transferring important information from short term memory to long term are controversial https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-memory-consolidation-2795355. Yes, you can memorize or rehearse what you want to remember, but how does the bulk of our memories get stored? What compression hacks is your brain making when it stores memories? Leonard points out that long term memory typically does not include all the details of a memory but rather the gist of what happened. And when we retrieve them into conscious working memory, we are likely to fill in details. For instance, imagine that Facebook reminds you of the Dublin Worldcon https://dublin2019.com last summer with a photo from your feed. Your friend took that great shot of you and me and editor extraordinaire Sheila Williams. What did we talk about? Ummm, the weather? The awful lines? The panel she and I had just finished about what makes a good story? Well, we must have talked about something, so you decide it must have been that memorable panel. You even took notes! Only if you look at the schedule https://www.dublin2019.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/ProgrammeScheduleWeb.pdf, I wasn’t on that panel. Maybe I just met her afterward? Or was the photo taken at another time altogether? The science of memory tells us long term memory is fragile https://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/memory/types-of-memory/long-term-memory/; some research indicates that every time you summon a long term memory into working memory, you alter it https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-our-brains-make-memories-14466850/. But still, that’s a nice snapshot of the three of us. Good times!

Your reasons aren’t as reasonable as you think. You’ve checked your privilege https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/what-checking-privilege-means/ and you’re aware of your biases. Good for you! But if you’re like everyone you know (and me, if we haven’t met) there are things that you believe that just aren’t true. Consider the Lake Wobegone Effect https://psychology.wikia.org/wiki/Lake_Wobegon_effect, the tendency to overestimate your achievements and abilities. Try this at an SF convention sometime: Get the group you’re in to close their eyes (you’ll need one judge to keep eyes open and record) and ask them to raise their hands if they’re an above average reader? An above average worker? An above average friend? You realize, of course, that in any group at least half should have hands down. And yet across all demographics, responses skew wildly positive. Just one example: The College Board asked 829,000 high school seniors to rate how they “get along with others.” Less than 1 percent admitted to being below average, while 60 percent positioned themselves in the top 10 percent, and a quarter claimed to be in the top 1 percent. Okay, that’s an easy one, but have you heard of motivated reasoning https://www.intelligentspeculation.com/blog/confirmation-bias-amp-motivated-reasoning? It’s the “cognitive bias that describes our tendency to accept what we want to believe more readily and with less scrutiny than that which we don’t want to believe.” Leonard makes the point that there are two ways we seek the truth for ourselves, “. . . the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer. Scientists gather evidence, look for regularities, form theories explaining their observations and test them. Attorneys begin with the conclusion they want to convince others of and then seek evidence that supports it, while also attempting to discredit evidence that doesn’t.” While we use both methods, using the way of the lawyer makes us happier than the way of the scientist. It’s always easier to embrace what we want, if only because our subliminal selves default to looking for hacks and shortcuts to cut down on our cognitive burden. Leonard writes, “The ‘causal arrow’ in human thought processes consistently tends to point from belief to evidence, not vice versa.”

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Of course as I read this section of Subliminal, it was clear to me that motivated reasoning is exactly why we can’t convince certain people about the reality of climate change. I wanted very much to believe that it’s a problem with the way other people think.

Because, after all, I know I’m above average. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Copyright © 2020 James Patrick Kelly

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