How and Why Does Subliminal Influence Work?
© 2/1999 ToddStark@AOL.COM
We have an
intuitive view of perception that is simple and compelling. We assume that energy from our
environment tickles our sensory organs, which then just deliver it as images to the brain.
The objects exist out in reality, so we see them. Then we think and feel and act based on
what we perceive.
If nature had
the same view, there would be no room for subliminal perception, we would either perceive
something or we wouldn't.
And in fact, conscious noticing works very
much like that. Either we see it or we don't. But it turns out that perception
is not the same thing as noticing. We can perceive things and respond to
them, without noticing their effect, or even their existence. Why should this be possible
The brain didn't evolve to serve strictly as a
faithful recorder of images, but as a guidance system for our survival. As a result, it
records things as faithfully as is useful, and distorts them when it is useful. Our
sensory systems evolved to be very flexible in interpreting what we perceive, so that we
can respond quickly and adaptively to changes around us.
This doesn't doesn't mean that we create our
own awareness out of whole cloth. It means that we take an active role, through our
learned experience, expectations, values, and needs, in interpreting what we
perceive. The remarkable and counter-intuitive thing about this is that much of it
can happen unconsciously.
One of the most fascinating tricks used by nature
to aid our survival is to design our brain as a prediction engine. We
constantly predict what we will perceive. This happens largely without our
awareness. We are continually guessing, beneath awareness, about what to expect.
These guesses are called by various names,
depending on which theory is being considered. Expectancy, perceptual
hypotheses, and schemata are all different ways of describing how we organize
our experience and response partly through prediction.
Prediction serves a number of useful
purposes. It makes us ready to act more quickly with a prepared response, and
it provides a way for us to quickly and efficiently recognize when we're off course and
need to make a correction. Things that violate our expectations get our
attention, setting off an alarm bell in our brain. When things are going along
according to expectations, familiar patterns tend to fade out of awareness, a process
known as habituation. So we largely respond to change rather than to
stable stimuli themselves.
Readiness is so fundamental that researchers
sometimes find that even in a spontananeous task, readiness potentials in the brain
occur before we realize we have decided to respond. HREF="/perl/article.pl?article=545#Libet et al., 1982, Readiness">(Libet et al, 1982)
That is, the decision process can be unconscious.
Most importantly of all, our state of readiness
even helps determine what we notice consciously. We don't just passively
receive sensory impressions and bring them to awareness. Our awareness and
understanding are based in a fundamental way on the prior experience of our body
interacting with the environment, and the perceptual assumptions we make.
There simply is not enough information available to
our senses to solve some of the perceptual problems we manage to solve routinely, unless
we were already prepared with assumptions. That's why psychologists are so
obsessed with illusions, they reveal the assumptions we make in perception.
Meaning derives from personal and physical
experience. Awareness is intimately dependent upon meaning, meaning derived from
prior experience. The manner in which prior experience structures our perception and
action is guided by the unconscious processing of subtle cues and the imagery and emotions
triggered by those subtle cues.
Sensory perception begins as unconscious
detection of features and then becomes aware at some point if sufficient higher
processing area neurons are activated. This can be shown in the brain as a
distinction between changes corresponding to noticing, vs. changes in response to stimuli.
(Lumer et al, 1998;
There are five basic phenomena of subliminal
Exposure Effect -- Exposure to an image without awareness
predisposes us to prefer that image over others.
Priming -- Exposure to an emotionally compelling image without awareness
causes us to respond emotionally without knowing why.
HREF="/perl/article.pl?article=545#Greenwald & Draine, three markers, 1996">Semantic Priming
-- Exposure to a word without awareness tends to bias our perception of subsequent
words for a fraction of a second.
Activation -- Exposure to certain kinds of fantasy images or
suggestion without awareness can influence mental state or psychosocial adaptation
in a meaningful and persistent way.
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