The Unconscious Mind: Total Nonsense, or What?

Remember the naked lady in the ice cube that was supposed to sell us soda? How about all the pranks that Tyler Durden pulls in Fight Club? Both are equally fictional — and people have pretty much given up on trying to influence our subconscious minds via subliminal imagery.

Is there really such a thing as the unconscious mind? Could someone really influence your thoughts via your subconscious? Some experiments have shown a surprising amount of success at getting your conscious perceptions to change, based on split-second, unconscious impressions.

Supposedly there is a lower consciousness hiding below your everyday brain functions. It sees more, processes more and understands our deepest desires — but we can't access it consciously because, I guess, our brain is a jerk. Or we can't access it because, according to Freud's theories about civilized repression, we're a jerk to our brain. Either way, we're never consciously aware that we see some things — but we act on them anyway.

This sounds like a con job — Something has taken over your brain, but you'll never know it's there, and you'll remember no conscious sign of it! And yet, there are experiments that indicate the subconscious watcher is there, inside you.

One of these is a math experiment. People were given a flash of four numbers on a screen, and asked to figure out if their average was higher or lower than five. That wasn't the subconscious part of the experiment. The part that poked the subconscious mind came before that. The places where the numbers were going to come up on the screen were occupied by hashtags. And just for a second, before the conscious numbers were flashed, another set of numbers were up there. These sets averaged, like the conscious numbers, above or below five. When the subjects were forced to guess what these briefly-flashed numbers were, they were as likely to guess wrong as they were to guess right. No one had 'seen' them.

The Unconscious Mind: Total Nonsense, or What?

And yet these numbers did have an effect. They didn't change the conclusions that people came to about the later set of numbers, but if they didn't match up with the later numbers, the people slowed down their guesses. If the consciously-flashed numbers averaged above five, but the unconsciously-flashed numbers averaged below five, people were about one fortieth of a second slower to guess right.

In another experiment, people were given a series of images that faded in, while masked by an ever-changing blur of shapes and colors. Scenes that were bizarre in some way, like a person giving a bath to a television set, instead of a bath to a dog, tended to become visible before more routine images were visible. Even when a person couldn't distinguish what the scene was, they 'saw' the shape of the unusual scenes first.

Then again, there's plenty of evidence against the unconscious mind as the best judge of everything. One of the most famous experiments, featured in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, features couples given quick glances at different apartments. If they were left to deliberate, they chose one apartment. If they were interrupted during their deliberations, and then pushed to make a choice without thinking, they chose a better apartment.

This experiment raised a lot of eyebrows in the psychology community, and people were quick to try and duplicate it. No sooner did they do this when they began getting different results. Couples chose just-as-good apartments when they were interrupted. People chose worse ones when they were interrupted. The original experiment, while not discredited, was much dismissed.

So what is the power of the unconscious mind? Is it an all-seeing eye that will help us if we just get out of the way and let it? Or is it just a weak idea batted around by some psychologists, supported by time spans of one fortieth of a second?

Top Image: Absolut Vodka Commercial, Head Studios

Numbers Image: PYM

Via Scientific American and Psyblog.