How danger is the ultimate aphrodisiac: Want a man to fall for you Take him on a scary date, says a new book exploring the hidden workings of our mind
22:45 GMT, 20 May 2012
Most of us have experienced the hairs on the back of our necks rising when instinct tells us something isn’t right. Or found ourselves unaccountably attracted to a stranger for no obvious reason.
These situations – when your unconscious mind momentarily takes over from your conscious one – used to be taken for granted and dismissed as gut feelings or acting on a hunch.
But over the past two decades, scientific researchers have developed remarkable tools for probing the hidden, or subliminal, workings of the mind.
It is normal for the body to react to fear with a quickened pulse and a surge of adrenalin, but your unconscious brain can confuse this with sexual chemistry says Leonard Mlodinow
The result of this explosion of research is a new science of the unconscious, and a sea change in our understanding of how the mind affects the way we live. In-depth studies and brain scans are beginning to unearth a fascinating picture of why we sometimes behave in unfathomable ways, make odd decisions and surprise even ourselves with our actions.
Leading theoretical physicist Leonard Mlodinow has pulled together the latest findings in a fascinating new book that explores the incredible power and influence of the unconscious mind. Mlodinow says studies show we are only really aware of 5 per cent of what’s going in and out of our brain. The other 95 per cent of our brain’s processing lies way beyond our conscious awareness.
The energy used by the brain each day is enough to light a 25 watt bulb
From the tiny muscle movements your body makes every second of every day just to keep you standing up to the constant stream of checks and balances that run through your head without you even thinking them (Is that person friendly Is it about to rain Could this food poison me), the brain is continually processing an endless stream of perceptions, feelings and thoughts amounting to 11 million bits of information per second.
This means there’s a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes — in our unconscious mind — of which we are unaware. The unconscious mind will notice things that the conscious mind doesn’t. When that happens, we may get a funny feeling about a business associate or a hunch about a stranger. We think this comes from nowhere, but, in fact, it will most likely be based on the assimilation of millions of unconscious observations — minuscule changes in body language, a vaguely remembered smell, tone of voice, dress, attitude and demeanour, that the brain assimilates without you realising. Here Mlodinow explains how . . .
LISTEN VERY CAREFULLY
The pitch, timbre, volume cadence, and the speed at which they speak, are all hugely influential in how we subconsciously judge someone’s state of mind and character. We may think we’re listening to the words they’re saying, but our unconscious mind will be analysing, judging and being affected by qualities of voice that have nothing to do with the ostensible message coming out of their mouth.
Without realising it, we typically judge high-pitched voices to be less truthful, less emphatic and more nervous than lower-pitched voices. Slower speakers are judged to be less truthful and less persuasive, but fast-talking registers are seen as smarter and more convincing. In studies, women instinctively respond to deeper male voices and rate them as more attractive, with research confirming that their owners have measurably higher levels of testosterone.
Mind boggling: The brain processes 11 million bits of information per second
Advertising guru Tim Bell knew all this when he masterminded the transformation of Lincolnshire girl Margaret Roberts to the force that became Margaret Thatcher. ‘She had a school-marmish, very slightly bossy, slightly hectoring voice,’ said Bell, who was in charge of the Tory party’s publicity campaigns. She lowered the pitch and, in so doing, increased her social dominance.
A TOUCH OF SUCCESS
When we are born, touch is our most highly developed sense and it remains an important influence throughout our lives. As busy adults we barely register the people who brush past us, but the message board will be flashing brightly on every single unconscious level. Scientists have discovered a particular kind of nerve fibre in our skin — especially in the face and arms — that appears to have developed specifically to transmit the pleasantness of social touch.
Those nerve fibres transmit their signal too slowly for you to register it, but the subliminal social message is picked up by the subconscious. Something as simple as an imperceptibly light touch on the arm has been shown to increase the number of women willing to accept an invitation to dance at a nightclub, boost the number of people agreeing to sign a petition, double a man’s success in getting a woman to give him her phone number (even though, when later asked, they had no memory of this physical contact) and substantially increase the size of a waiter’s tip.
The unconscious brain loves to fill empty spaces. If a cough obliterates a syllable or two in a sentence, our mind will immediately fill those gaps with something it deems most likely to have been there. If we have only a vague recollection of a face or event, our memory will do its best — without us realising — to add details, so we’re left with a vivid and complete picture. Our subliminal mind takes incomplete data, then uses context or other clues to complete the picture and make educated guesses to produce a result that is sometimes accurate, sometimes not, but is always — to the conscious mind — convincing. The problem comes when we use stereotypes or social categories to fill in these blanks — and we can’t help ourselves from doing this. So, if we spot two men apparently shoplifting — one unshaven in grubby jeans and the other wearing a suit — we are statistically more likely to report the unshaven one to the police.
CHEAP WINE CAN BE GREAT
Experiments show that in a blind wine-tasting, there is little correlation between taste and cost, but this changes when we think we’re sipping a vintage. Brain scans show the unconscious parts of the brain register increased pleasure if we have been told the wine is expensive. Researchers scanned the brains of wine tasters and found that as they increased the supposed ‘price’ of cheap wines, an area of the brain behind the eyes called the orbito-frontal cortex — a region associated with the experience of pleasure — lit up. Though the conscious mind may remain circumspect about what it thinks it is tasting, the millions of messages whizzing from palate to brain and back again tell their own story.
WHY YOU FALL IN LOVE
It is normal for the body to react to fear with a quickened pulse and a surge of adrenalin. In the heady mix of stimuli, your unconscious brain can confuse this with sexual chemistry. When you meet someone you find attractive, the unconscious mind will pool all the information about both your and their physical state with data about the social situation and the emotions you may be experiencing to come up with a summary of how you are feeling. This synopsis is then fed to the conscious mind: you like them or you don’t. However, things sometimes get lost in translation. In one study, couples who met for the first time on a bridge over a steep ravine were more likely to exchange phone numbers than those who met under less frightening circumstances. It seems the prospect of falling hundreds of feet is a powerful aphrodisiac.
WHY SMITHS MARRY SMITHS
We all have a basic desire to feel good about ourselves, and so have a tendency to be unconsciously biased in favour of traits similar to our own — even, it seems, our names. Statistics show Smiths marry other Smiths three to five times more often than Johnsons, Williamses, Joneses or Browns combined. Bizarrely, the Johnsons, Williamses, Joneses and Browns behave in exactly the same way.
Extracted from Subliminal: The Revolution Of New Unconscious by Leonard Mlodinow, out this Thursday (Allen Lane). To order a copy for 16.99 (P&P free), call 0843 382 0000.