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Leonard Mlodinow: Subliminal

Theorist Leonard Mlodinow pokes around in the human unconscious for his new book, 'Subliminal'
BRAINIAC : Author Leonard Mlodinow will discuss the mysteries of the brain at a May 3 talk in Palo Alto.

Finally, a scientist who takes the unconscious world seriously. At last, we have a Ph.D. unafraid to open his prologue with a Carl Jung quote about the invisible roots of our conscious thoughts.

Featuring a lime-green cover with hidden text visible only when one tilts it correctly in the light, Leonard Mlodinow's new book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Pantheon), explores just what its title, um, suggests: "The surprising and exotic forces at play beneath the surface of our own minds.'

Mlodinow, who appears May 3 for a Commonwealth Club event in Palo Alto, presents the two-tier brain system of the conscious and unconscious. Unlike Freud, who believed the unconscious to be that which represses and prevents, a new view of unconsciousness has emerged, says Mlodinow. In this view, the architecture of the brain itself is what prevents the conscious mind from accessing the realm of the unconscious.

What follows are extensive anecdotes and scientific research. Every little tidbit reveals that although our subliminal brain is invisible to us, it dramatically influences our conscious experience of the world—the way we view ourselves, the importance we attach to everyday events, the ways in which we interact socially and even make spontaneous life-or-death decisions.

If you're a scientist or a skeptic, forever sick of all the new age hooey-blooey you think might come along with such subjects, this book contains none. The author presents his case that new technologies can shed more light on areas previously written off as speculation.

"Sophisticated new technologies have revolutionized our understanding of the part of the brain that operates below our conscious mind,' Mlodinow writes, "[making] it possible, for the first time in human history, for there to be an actual science of the unconscious.'

The book includes sections specifically dealing with how the unconscious affects the five senses, plus perception, social interactions, memory storage and group dynamics. We see that our conscious activity is only a tiny percentage of everything that is really going on in our brains.

For example, Mlodinow references a study on brain energy consumption, in comparison to physical activity. That is, during strenuous physical activity like running or working out, your muscles consume about 100 times more energy than if you were lounging on the couch because your body is obviously working 100 times harder.

That same scenario, however, does not apply to your brain, Mlodinow says. If your conscious thought is hard at work, say, assessing many possible configurations of the chessboard during a match, the deep concentration employed does not cause the energy consumption in your brain to increase by the same ratio as, say, physical activity would. In fact, even massive concentration only causes your brain to consume 1 percent more energy than if your brain was at rest or relaxed.

Says Mlodinow, "Regardless of whether your conscious mind is idle or engaged, your unconscious mind is hard at work doing the mental equivalent of push-ups, squats, and wind sprints.'

So, if fellow workers are complaining that a journalist is asleep at his desk or on Facebook all day, it doesn't mean his unconscious mind isn't simultaneously working overtime on his story. That's where the majority of the brain's work is done anyway.

In another chapter, "Sorting People and Things,' Mlodinow explicates many scientific studies that reveal how our unconscious transforms nuance and fuzziness into clear-cut distinctions.

In just one study of many he includes, when people estimated the average temperature between June 1 and June 30, they tended to underestimate it, but when guessing the average temperature between June 15 and July 15, they tended to overestimate it. The artificial grouping into days of the same month had an unconscious effect on how the person applied his conscious estimation. In the end, Mlodinow says that understanding how our unconscious works gives us a better and fonder sense of ourselves as humans. Were Carl Gustav Jung conscious today, he would subliminally attend Mlodinow's presentation next week.

Leonard Mlodinow

May 3, 7pm; $7–$20

Schultz Cultural Hall