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25,000 leagues under your attention span,
This review is from: Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior (Hardcover)
Holes in our visual field, knitted into wholeness by our brains; blanks in our hearing filled in without our conscious awareness; memories, concocted whole from malleable bits of real and fabricated truth. These are the subject of Leonard Mlodinow's incredible book, "Subliminal."
Optical illusions and the vagaries of memory are not new topics. In fact, my major argument with the first half "Subliminal" was that so many of the studies it cited were familiar to me from other reading. How many of us have seen the test in which we were asked which 16 nearly identical Lincoln pennies were right one? But Mlodinow eventually compiles unfamiliar material into a compendium of cognitive legerdemain that would make the David Copperfields and Chris Angels of the world blush with shame. It seems that our brains stitch together a picture of reality from what cognitive scientists can show are imperfect images and sounds. A trivial example: the human eye has a blind spot (where the optic nerve pierces the cornea) but we "see" it only when we trick the brain's vision center by moving a dot carefully into its path. Our ears work the same way, filling in imperfectly-heard words based on context. Hearing only "the boy threw the _all" and the "the painter brushed the _all," the brain easily fills in the missing "b" and "w." What's amazing is that the person reports actually "hearing" these missing sounds, when they were auto-generated.
Mlodinow's writing about cognition is most striking (and worrying) in his discussion of memory. Whether it is our memory of the events of 9/11 or of a crime we witnessed, our memories are fallible, and (most distressingly) fungible. Studies show that memories, rather than being snapshots of reality tucked away in the protective file chests, actually change over time and can be easily implanted. In one striking study, students were asked to write their 9/11 recollections just a few days after the incident. Some years later, they were asked to write them again. The accounts differed so wildly that the students, when given their original recollections in their own handwriting, were hard put to believe them. Seemingly, memory is a narrative composed on the spot from bits and piece of actual experience, invented events and guesses about likely occurrences. The implications for eyewitness testimony about crimes were hard to miss. Upwards of 25% of eyewitness in a police lineup select fill-ins - innocent people added to the lineup. What does that say about their accuracy when they select the "criminal"?
"Subliminal" is disquieting and humbling -the kind of book that will make you wonder if your mind is really your own. But it is fascinating, and you will find myself talking about often with friends. Best of all, it will make you better at judging claims made by mere human beings, whose brains evolved to be just good enough to spot a crouching tiger, but not so good as to take in the infinite details of grass in which it lies.