How Do We Know What We Know Is Actually What We Know?

brain Or. . .how on earth can anyone believe such-and-such a pea-brained theory? That candidate? That idea?

Has this thought ever crossed your mind? The answer is that a great deal of our responses to life around us, our reactions to other people and events, even our memories are pre-programmed without our awareness.

Dozens (perhaps hundreds or thousands?) of studies exist that substantiate this point of view. Fortunately we don’t have to go in search of them. Author/physicist/screenwriter and all-round Renaissance guy Leonard Mlodinow has gathered them for us and relates them in fascinating and readable form in Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior. You may be aware of the term “subliminal” from introductory psych class, the concept that we can be influenced by messages below the level of our cognizance. In the 60s ad agencies and businesses were enthralled with the idea that the robotic masses could be persuaded to buy more popcorn at movies or a certain brand of liquor, just about anything by flashing words on a screen, or hiding sexual images in print ads.

Mlodinow is waaay beyond that. Some of the points:
• No one’s memory is or can be perfect. Our brains fill in the gaps for us automatically. So two people can hold strong opposite views of a happening and be absolutely convinced they’re right. Remember that next time you have an argument with a friend or lover.
• Our brains filter any information we receive and skew it to support or oppose views we already hold. Hence the battles royal over gun control. This isn’t deliberate stupidity on anyone’s part; it’s our unconscious.
• Senses, like sight, smell, and so forth, also plug the blanks in our perceptions. An example, the stock market is more likely to turn upward in sunny weather, and the type of music played in a liquor store affects the sale of wines by nation of origin.
• Touching someone (even lightly and without his knowledge) makes that person’s perception of you more likely to be positive.

Subliminal, from the unconscious part of the mind, is different from subconscious. While psychologists and others may brangle over exact meanings, suffice it to say that the unconscious contains courses in the mind that occur automatically and that we cannot access.

So what does this mean? As a writer, I find this type of analysis helpful for creating and explaining my characters’ behavior.

As a person, I react exactly as predicted. I’ve always believed that people can be of good will even if they hold beliefs diametrically opposed to me. I have a friend who quite honestly feels that no Republican has the best of intentions. Literally absolutely none. But I don’t agree. My perception of reality is supported by what I already unconsciously believe. And we’re both right, according to Mlodinow and ourselves.