Leonard Mlodinow On Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior

Leonard Mlodinow's bookdelves into how the unconscious mind shapes our experiences of the world, for better or for worse. Everything we experience or choose depends on subtle, unnoticeable perceptions and misperceptions that are part of our unconscious mental landscape.
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Leonard Mlodinow is a man at home with big ideas. Really big ideas. A physicist, author and professor, Mlodinow has spent much of the past few decades exploring life's most complicated questions: What's the nature of the universe? How does the human mind work? Did Darwin go wrong? What is the role of randomness in our lives? Is there a grand design in the universe?

Mlodinow's passions have taken him to the crossroads of science and spirituality and spawned a host of extraordinary books, three of which were New York Times bestsellers: War of the Worldviews: Science vs Spirituality, co-authored with Deepak Chopra; The Grand Design, one of two books co-authored with Stephen Hawking, and The Drunkard's Walk: The Story of Randomness and Its Role In Our Lives.

If Mlodinow is a man of Big Ideas, however, he's also a man of many lives -- one whose career has not necessarily gone from point A to point B. Raised by holocaust survivors, Mlodinow began his college education at Brandeis University before dropping out and traveling to Israel to live on a kibbutz. He later returned to the U.S., earned a doctorate in theoretical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, and began studying things that most mere mortals cannot comprehend (axiomatic quantum field theory and non-linear dielectric media, for starters).

He later left the academic world for Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter for 10 years before changing careers yet again to design and produce computer games, an endeavor that brought him numerous awards, including the National Association of Parenting Publications Gold Medal -- twice. This led to a position heading up software development and math education for Scholastic, and writing popular science and children's books. In 2005, he returned to teaching and writing books.

Summing up his career changes in a recent New York Times essay, Mlodinow wrote: "When we're in college, we think about our future as a direct line from now to then, from here to there. You might get an internship at a financial services firm, then become an assistant, and gradually move up until someday you're the boss. That's a fine life's path. But if you look at the careers of many successful people, you'll find that their route is often far more sinuous. And if you look at happy people, you'll find even fewer who traveled a straight line."

Mlodinow's own sinuous path has led to his latest book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. It delves into how the unconscious mind shapes our experiences of the world, for better or for worse. Everything we experience or choose -- from our political persuasions to how much we tip a waiter -- is predicated in large part by the subtle, unnoticeable perceptions and misperceptions that are part of our unconscious mental landscape. With great wit and intelligence, Mlodinow takes us on a sweeping tour of this landscape and the latest revelations in neuroscience.

Huff/Post50 recently caught up with Mlodinow to discuss his new book and many careers.

You've tackled some of life's most complicated questions. What motivated you to write Subliminal?

It was a good companion to my previous book The Drunkard's Walk, which was all about randomness and how we misunderstand a lot of what goes on around us. Subliminal is a similar book about your inner life -- the inner emotional and social experiences that you can't really understand if you don't understand the unconscious mind.

What experiences in your own past motivated your interest in this subject?

I've always loved science, as far back as I can remember. I was very, very curious about how everything worked: the world, the physical universe, chemistry, law. So it was only natural to be curious about how our mind works.

And, of course, there are all sorts of things floating around in our subliminal minds that come from our pasts.

Yes, and our pasts definitely affect us on a subliminal level. I like to use the analogy of vision to describe how our unconscious might create reality. When you look out into the world, you see what seems to be a clear and 3D image of it. It seems real to you, but it's not really real. It's not literally what's out there. The data that falls onto your retina is very sparse data and the picture of the world literally put together from that data would be very fuzzy. It wouldn't be very useful for navigating the world.

Yet we perceive something very clear, and that's because our unconscious mind is doing all of this processing. It does it instantaneously and without any effort, so we just think that what we see out there is real. Similar things happen in our social judgments and in the way we perceive everything in the world. In my book, I tell a story about when I didn't call my mother at our scheduled time. Her illusion was that I must have been killed, because her context was that bad things happen. She viewed things this way. When she looked at other people and things, she always seemed to take a dark view based on her past experience. That's a lot like our optical illusions.

What other things insinuate themselves into our subliminal minds?

One thing that feeds into the way you experience the social world is your mood -- and one thing that affects your mood is the weather. Researchers did a study and found that the Stock Market goes up much more on sunny days than on rainy days. So even though these stock brokers are going to work thinking that they're making rational judgments, those judgments are very much affected by their mood and the weather. Another example is when you go buy wine. You think you're picking the wine according to the origin, grape or price -- various conscious factors. But one unconscious factor is your mood or your emotions.

Likewise in England, researchers did a study where they played German and French music alternately on a wine aisle where they had a mixture of German and French wines. On the day they played the German music, two-thirds of the people bought German wine. On the day that French music was played, they bought French wine.

It's unsettling to think that such little things can subliminally affect our choices. It reminds me of the brouhaha about subliminal messages that are presumably embedded in advertising.

That kind of unconscious manipulation in advertising doesn't really work. It was like seeing Jesus' face in the clouds. A lot of those stories about hidden messages that convince you to buy a different brand are pretty much bogus and a hoax.

But the unconscious mind can still trip us up and create subjective notions of reality that border on magical thinking, can't it?

It can trip you up, but it's just like your eyes: Your unconscious mind makes these pictures of the world so you can walk around and not bump into walls. And most of the time this works just fine. It's the same way in our social world. There's a reason we have emotions and there's a reason that emotions affect our decision-making on an unconscious level and really help us. For instance, touching is how all primates communicate and form bonds with each other. Non-human primates spend hours a day grooming each other. And with humans, touching is also important. It's a way to form bonds and connect in modern society. But you can also speed up the use of conscious purposes once you're aware of that, and it can be manipulated.

For instance, for one study in France researchers hired a handsome, young Frenchman to stand on street corners and proposition single women who walked by. To half of them, he gave a light, half-second touch to the arm or the elbow. He didn't touch the other half. And the success rate in getting phone numbers basically doubled from 10 percent to 20 percent with those who were touched. Waiters increased their tips in a similar experiment from 14-1/2 percent to 17 percent and so on. You can say that's good or bad. You can say that the waiter is manipulating you or that you were touched and it convinced you to do something you didn't want to do. On some level, you might look at it that way, but in general, that's how we human beings bond with each other.

You were curious enough to stop science all together, change careers, and become a Hollywood screenwriter. A scientist in Hollywood -- that's not an ordinary pairing. How did that happen?

I always liked movies so I started writing for Hollywood, but my day job was physics. And when I finally started getting work in Hollywood, I thought they wanted me because I was a physicist. But that really wasn't true at all. One day I pitched a story. I thought I was really cool because my pitch was filled with real science in it. When I was done, all the producers sat around looking at me. There was this silence. Then my boss looked at me and said, "Shut up, you egghead." I realized that they'd actually hired me because they liked the MacGyver script that I'd written. It had nothing to do with me being a scientist.

And then you had yet another career change?

Yes, I went into computer games because those were very pioneering times . It just before Windows came into being. I stayed in the gaming world for about 10 years. Then I went to Scholastic in New York to develop a math education curriculum. Then I came back and now I write books and teach at Cal Tech.

Have you always been fearless of change and simply had faith your decisions to change?

Yes, pretty much. I always assumed things would work out. And I've never given up my love of science.

Check out the slideshow below for seven things your subconscious mind controls.



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