The new unconscious

Chetan Parikh dwells into the deep end and analyses Subliminal

Leonard Mlodinow is a man of many talents. The theoretical physicist who teaches at Caltech not only has several academic achievements to his credit, but has also won himself countless fans with The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives and A Briefer History Of Time, which he co-authored with Stephen Hawking. His latest book, Sublimal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior could have been a tougher read had it not been for his ability to connect his hypotheses to everyday events. 

But first, some context. It was Carl Jung who wrote: the invisible roots of our conscious thoughts  are below the threshold of consciousness. The modern study of the workings of the unconscious, called the ‘new unconscious’, is distinguished from the Freudian unconscious (“hot and wet; it seethed with lust and anger; it was hallucinatory, primitive and irrational”).

This new unconscious is “kinder and gentler than that and more reality bound” — and Mlodinow says it arises due to the architecture of the brain rather than being subject to Freudian forces like repression. He then clarifies that the inaccessibility of the new unconscious is not an unhealthy defence mechanism but completely normal. How so? Evidence suggests that we naturally relegate the process of perception, memory, attention, learning and judgement to brain structures outside the conscious. 

Mlodinow dwells on aspects as complex as Kahneman and Tversky’s System Thinking and ‘fluency effects’ without befuddling his reader. And challenges classical economic thought because rationality does not square well with unconscious desires and motivations — and so is ignored by traditional economists. It follows that logical absurdities arise because of wrong assumptions of human behaviour. In fact, Mlodinow persuades us that the unconscious mind dominates mental activity and other assumptions are wrong. 

Some fascinating experiments run throughout the book — on ‘phonemic restoration’ (the unconscious fills in blanks when there is incomplete information in order to construct a useful picture); ‘memory errors’ (a good memory for the general gist of events, but a bad one for details  — unremembered elements get inadvertently filled up even by well-intentioned people and the result is a strong belief in the memories thus built up); ‘hurt feelings’ (the pain of social rejection and the pain of physical injury are equivalent); the ‘theory of the mind’ (which occurs all the time in the stock markets,  and which Keynes called a “beauty contest” where “second order”, “third order” and even higher order thinking is done); “face effects” (judging people by “their covers” — voice, looks and so on) and; ‘categorical or stereotype thinking’ (mentally absorbing the categories defined by the society in which we live).

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt said that there are only two ways to get at the truth — the way of the scientist and the way of the lawyer. Scientists gather evidence, look for regularities, form theories explaining their behaviour, and then test them. Attorneys begin with a conclusion and then seek evidence that supports it while attempting to discredit evidence that doesn’t. The human mind, Mlodinow says, is designed to be both a scientist and an attorney — consciously seeking the objective truth but unconsciously being an impassioned advocate for what it wants to believe. This is what creates our worldview. So let me leave you with one of my favourite lines from this, well, sublime book: the brain is a decent scientist, but an absolutely outstanding lawyer.