You Have No Control
By Spencer Sherk
You probably think that you know yourself pretty well. Sure, you may sometimes find that your close friends or family members seem to know you freakishly well, but in the end of the day, you are the expert on you. In Subliminal, Dr. Leonard Mlodinow sets out on a mission to convince you otherwise, and be warned, he is incredibly convincing. In the wake of breakthroughs made in the field of neuroscience during last two centuries, our previously accepted, and instinctually accepted perceptions of how our minds work have been completely dismissed. Recent findings using BMRI technology have revealed the enormous role that our unconscious plays in dictating our behavior, and this has lead psychologists and scientists to a pretty disconcerting conclusion: We have much less control than we think.
After reading just the first few pages of the book, any reader will immediately feel the effect that the vast knowledge, and the incredible enthusiasm of the author has on the text. Mlodinow incorporates elements from his various past works including everything from his collaboration with Stephen Hawking on The Grand Design to his work on the children’s book, The Kids of Einstein Elementary. Mlodinow’s personal life plays a surprisingly large role in the book as Mlodinow applies principles concerning how the unconscious works to his relationship with his mother. Mlodinow’s mother is a holocaust survivor, and Mlodinow makes the case that her past experiences have left huge impressions on her unconscious of which she is unaware. For example Mlodinow presents us with the true story of how his mother called his roommate and accused him of murder when she was unable to reach her then 24 year old son one day. To the casual observer, his mother was exhibiting the traits of a complete nut-job, but Mlodinow defends her actions as being perfectly normal considering the effects that her past experiences have had on her unconscious. Mlodinow’s mother had been affected in a way that most of us cannot sympathize with. As Mlodinow explains, her reality had been turned upside-down in an instant, her entire family; her mother, her father, and her sister, were all killed overnight, and thus her unconscious openly accepts the possibility of immediate tragedy as a likely reality. When Mlodinow confronts her with this however, she denies that a subliminal force has altered her unconscious, and she even asserts that the two things have anything to do with each other and she firmly believes that her actions were attributed only to mundane sources. Mlodinow includes many examples of the subliminal at work like this one, and they serve well to demonstrate otherwise abstract concepts in a scene that makes such concepts both engrossing and easy to visualize.
In short, this book is a sweeping review of key psychological research exemplified by an interesting array of supporting evidence regarding perception, decision-making, and the influence that others have on our behavior. Mlodinow reinforces the strength of his assertion that the unconscious affects everything by including both field studies, and everyday examples which vary so enormously, and at first seem so unrelated that by the time you reach the end of the book, you will feel that he has shown how the unconscious affects quite literally everything. The evidence he presents against the power that your conscious mind has in your everyday decision making will likely anger everyone from wine connoisseurs to the run of the mill walmart shopper.
Mlodinow writes a book that is of formal, yet still easy to read style. The book’s transitions are very useful and efficient in making Subliminal read smoothly and fast-paced as if it were a novel. Each section ends with both a summary of the ideas discussed, as well as an ending paragraph or two that introduce the next topic and how it relates to the grand scheme of things. While one might think this writing formula would result in basic, tasteless writing, the summary-preview-review flows naturally and never seems forced. Mlodinow’s attention to flow enhances the readability and, ultimately, the usefulness of his book.
Although the idea that you’re affected more by subliminal forces which affect your unconscious than you are by rational motives at first seems ominous, Mlodinow surprisingly ends by saying that the unconscious is not something to be feared, but rather something to be acknowledged and embraced. Mlodinow speaks to the effectiveness of the unconscious’ ability simplify life, citing thousands of years of evolution which have favored the unconscious as proof of its usefulness. He says that the unconscious has massive potential for good if it is conditioned and practiced like a muscle.“The unconscious is at its best when it helps us create a positive and fond sense of self, a feeling of power and control in a world full of powers far greater than the merely human.” Mlodinow’s final, optimistic conclusion leaves readers feeling both knowledgeable and enlightened upon finishing his book. If you are at all interested in psychology, neuroscience, or even economics, Subliminal is incredibly informative, and definitely for you. And even if you currently have no interest in the aforementioned fields, this book is such an interesting, enjoyable read that it might just inspire you to delve deeper into the world of psychology.