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Subliminal by Leonard Mlodinow - 3 Big Ideas

Our unconscious minds are active, purposeful and independent. They play a critical role in shaping the way our conscious minds experience and respond to the world.

Everything you need to know about unconscious psychology.


Welcome to 3 Things You Can Use, where Maddi and I decode self-improvement and entrepreneurship through books, three things at a time. This week's book is Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinow.

"Over the past two decades of neurological research, it has become increasingly clear that the way we experience the world--our perception, behavior, memory, and social judgment--is largely driven by the mind's subliminal processes and not by the conscious ones, as we have long believed."


So, what are three things we can use from this book?

3 Things You Can Use

1. The Unconscious is The Best

From gut feelings to dodging speeding baseballs, our unconsciouses are always standing behind us waiting to catch us when we fall.

Using some of the same studies as mentioned in the book: Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, Leonard Mlodinow shows us how the unconscious is somehow able to let us know when things don't seem right.

That gut feeling that you don't trust someone or a situation.

Our conscious can only take in and analyze about 40 units of incoming information at a time, while there are generally billions of inputs. It's fine though, for our conscious to be so inept with the large amount of info, because our unconscious takes care of the rest.

Instinctual perception comes in the form of feelings we get that we recognize as signals from inside us. The gut feeling, the increased arousal and nerves. These feelings come from the unconscious.

Though that's not the only cool thing that our unconscious mind does for us...

Did you know that some blind people can sense your mood by looking at your face? and they can navigate through an obstacle course without the assistance of a cane?

Blindsight, seeing without being able to consciously see, is the unconscious at work again. This let's us in on how the unconscious works with sighted people as well.

The unconscious, in a blindsighted person, is still able to get the information from the eyes. This means that certain parts of the unconscious helps us to recognize how people are feeling based on their facial expressions and it helps us to protect ourselves by influencing where we move.

and, more features of the unconscious,

Our eyes are only taking in a two dimensional picture at any given moment. Though we perceive in 3D. We also have blind spots in our vision and can't focus on everything at once. Somehow, our unconscious helps us with this as well, filling in the blind spots with estimations and helping us to decide what to focus on.

The unconscious also influences our social ability...

Have I mentioned that a blind person can sense your mood by looking at your face?

But as well, as we speak sentences to each other and are focusing on what message we are trying to convey, our unconscious is grabbing words and hammering, sawing and gluing providing us with sentence structure, gerunds, subjective verbs and indefinite articles. Our unconscious is also making sure that we are standing the proper distance away, closer for friends and further for strangers. It's also putting together the meanings of the other person's sentences.

According to some scientific approximations, 95% of our processing goes on behind our consciousness.

The unconscious is the best.

2. The Unconscious is The Worst

Just as with vision, it is as with memory, perception and judgement. We can only get some of the objective info consciously, so our unconscious fills in the rest.

Leonard Mlodinow puts it this way,

"In contexts ranging from vision, to memory, to the way we judge the people we meet, if a central function of the unconscious is to fill in the blanks when there is incomplete information, in order to construct a useful picture of reality, how much of that picture is accurate?"

Memory (eyewitness testimony, planting new memories, and the telephone game)

Memory is garbage.

Eyewitness testimony in most cases is just plain old made up. Not intentionally either. Most witnesses firmly believe their memories and want to do their best to help. But their memories do not align with the events at all in most cases.

Memories rely on our expectations and more generally, rely on our belief systems and prior knowledge. When our expectations, beliefs and prior knowledge are at odds with the actual events, our brains can be fooled.

3 Points of memory that best align with our current neurological understanding:

  • People have a good memory for the general gist of the events, but a bad one for the details

  • When pressed for the unremembered details, even well intentioned people making a sincere effort to be accurate will inadvertently fill in the gaps by making things up

  • People will believe the memories they make up.

Scientists have also been successful implanting false memories. Saying it's actually pretty easy to do so. They've done it in infants and gorillas.

They have people who've never been in a balloon ride describing the sensations they remember feeling while up in the sky in their hot air balloon.

Perfectly good memories can become affected with more use. Remembering something over and over is like playing the game telephone. You start with one sentence at the beginning and end with a completely different one by the end.

Makes you worry about your memory altogether doesn't it. Who are you?

But it's not only our memory that our unconscious shames us with. But it's influence on our judgement might make you shudder as well.

The book Pre-suasion goes through all of the different psychological tricks you can play on people, while reminding you that these tricks can be played on you.

Leonard reinforces this notion with examples of how we judge products by their boxes, books by their covers and even corporations' annual reports by their glossy finishes.

The amount of sunlight affects the prices of stocks, the size of our meal affects how much we will eat, and the color of someone's skin affects how we will initially perceive them.

This last one, stereotyping, is explained through our categorical thinking. Our unconscious assigns attributes to things that can associate together, chairs are things you sit on and look like this, fruits are good and look like this, etc...

And our unconscious, being a pattern detector with no skin in the game, puts together it's idea of common attributes based on actual experience and teachings. Tall people are like this, women are like this, men are like this.

And as a side-note, this is a big hindrance. Though it's not the final say, he points out. We do have an influence on this and exposing ourselves and our unconscious to less stereotypical experiences with people moves the needle.

So our unconscious influences us in some pretty fundamental and not so good ways, in both the "far from expectations" sense and in the "oh crap" sense. But something that this book helps us to realize, and hopefully take action on, is that we don't really know everything about what's going on with ourselves, our memories, our judgements and our decisions.

Leonard Mlodinow sums it up this way,

"We all make personal, financial and business decisions confident that we have properly weighed all the important factors and acted accordingly and that we know how we came to those decisions. But we are only aware of our conscious influences and so have only partial information. As a result, our view of ourselves, and our motivations, and of society, is like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces missing. We fill in the blanks and make guesses but the truth about us is far more complex and subtle than that which can be understood from a straightforward calculation of conscious and rational minds."

So having confidence in a memory, a judgement or a decision, in the face of opposition, where the results lean on you, it may be wise to take a step back and question the validity of the picture you are seeing, that your unconscious drew crayon all over.

3. Unrealistic Belief In Yourself

Just as the the unconscious fills in the gaps in memory, in perception and in judgement, it fills in the gaps in our approximations of ourselves. It fills in the blind spots of ourselves to affect how we feel about who we are.

And no, just as you guessed, it's not inclined to make us feel worse about ourselves.

Our unconscious fills in the vague perceptions with positive attributes.

In psychology it's called inflated self-assessment.

We overestimate our abilities in all sorts of ways. We think we will be NBA stars, we think we can run a company better than most and we think we are above-average drivers.

It's called the above-average effect. Ironically indicating that most of us think that we are above the average, where for atleast half of us, that can't be true.

Leonard Mlodinow points out that we even overestimate our ability to not overestimate our abilities. We think that we don't put ourselves above average unless we really objectively are above average.

This is a form of motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning leads us to conclusions that we favor, either helping to support beliefs we already have or helping us to feel better about ourselves and certain outcomes that we've influenced.

Though you might consider this to be another way the the unconscious is the worst, it's actually a mixed bag here.

He says that without our, usually irrational, beliefs in ourselves, we wouldn't pursue the big dreams that we have -- and we couldn't accomplish them. If we really looked at how hard it was to be an NBA player and how low the odds were for a random person like ourselves, then we wouldn't practice five hours a day and actually land somewhere near that dream.

If we didn't think we were better CEOs than most, when the company started a downturn we might just give up rather than have the gusto to push forward with the expectation that we could help the company succeed.

Though our unrealistic belief in ourselves might seem like a mental shortcoming, it ends up benefiting us tremendously. The framing of our unconscious that lifts us up out of the paradigm that we seem to be average in most ways is the reason that we have NBA stars, brilliant CEOs and ambitious and motivated people doing great things for the world.

The author sees the unconscious as an unseen partner, always providing the support he needs as he walks and stumbles his way through life.

And I think that's a good way to view it. *look at unconscious* Thanks for the support.


The unconscious is the best. It gives us the what's up and it helps us to navigate life.

The unconscious is the worst. It makes so much up and fills in all kinds of factors with hoopla and use those to make up our paradigms. We would be wise to trust our memories and judgements a little less when they influence important happenings.

The unconscious is flawed, but it's a good friend. The unconscious picks us up, motivates us and always has our back.

This was an awesome book and there was so much I couldn't include...

How our expectations affect everything. How our Ingroup and outgroup perceptions shape ourselves, others, society as a whole. How we grossly misinterpret our feelings, physiologically and introspectively. The unfair social influence of factors like voice, touch and appearance.

Such an important book to read. If everybody read this book, I'm sure the world would be a better place.

Yeah, between Subliminal, this book, and Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, if every person would just read these two books, we could all be a little less brash and a little more considerate of how fundamentally animal we all really are. That the notion of agency has far too much weight in our societies, and that we really have simple, communal desires that get tossed aside for both short-sighted and unsustainable bursts of pleasure and long-term but inevitably empty pursuits.

So if you're interested in how we really seem to operate, I would highly recommend those two books.

But just as a side note here, and more to the point of this being a book I'm reviewing, the author was actually really funny too. Not like, oh I need to go through and add funny quips to make my publisher happy, but like, complicated and interesting jokes mixed in with the content.

So, this is just a plain old good book. I listened to it on Audible, and halfway through I ordered it in hardcover. Just because I want to see it on my bookshelf.

I highly recommend it... don't know if I mentioned that yet.


Thank you for watching, if you're not subscribed, make sure to subscribe so you don't miss next week's video, and -

we'll see you next week!

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Punching Sounds by: Mike Koenig

Reading Photo at end of video by: Marketa

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