Last night, I headed to the beautiful Bell House in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn for the monthly Secret Science Club lecture, in which physicist(!) Dr Leonard Mlodinow gave a neuroscience (!!) lecture. Dr Mlodinow also has the distinction of having written scripts for McGuyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation. He also authored The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, co-authored The Grand Design with some guy named Steve, and has just released Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, which formed the basis of his talk.
The simple definition of subliminal is "beneath the threshold of the senses". Dr Mlodinow began his talk with a brief account of James Vicary, a marketing researcher who claimed to have flashed subliminal advertisements for popcorn during the course of a film showing, which led to increased popcorn sales- the claims were later determined to be a hoax.
Our mental lives can be divided into a conscious and an unconscious... we are unaware of our unconscious. Our conscious mentality is not a record of experience, but is constructed from limited data- our perceptions and our memory of them. There is a difference between what the eye sees and what the brain perceives. The brain fills in gaps in input (February's lecture went into this at length). Optical illusions mess with context, rendering our perception unreliable.
Humans being social animals, "social intelligence" is important to us. The fusiform facial recognition area is devoted mainly to recognizing faces. The ability to recognize faces doesn't work well when we view an upside down portrait of a familiar face. Also, our ability to determine the gender of a portrait often depends on the contrast in the image.
We also tend to fill in auditory input- if part of a word is interrupted by a sound (e.g. a cough), we can fill in the part of the word that was inaudible. In another exercise, the word "eel" was spoken in various sentences, and was perceived in different fashion according to other words in the sentence (the word "orange" would result in one perceiving the word "peel", "shoe" would render "heel"). Dr Mlodinow then played a section of the song Stairway to Heaven backwards- the first time he played the section, there were no accompanying lyrics, and the clip sounded like gibberish. Then he played the clip with accompanying "lyrics", and the written words affected the audience's perception of the clip. A third playing of the clip, after the suggested "lyrics" we added, and one tended still to perceive the "words".
Social perception involves a quick assessment of limited information. For this reason, uniforms are typically worn by individuals to assist observers in assessing the roles of the individuals wearing them. Social judgment is not a direct result of experience, but must be constructed by observers. Dr Mlodinow cited an experiment by Princeton University psychologist Alex Todorov, who had participants rate photos of men for competence and likeability... the photos were portraits of competing politicians, and the 70% of the individuals rated as more competent had been victorious in their campaigns.
Dr Mlodinow then went into the unconscious influence of touch. In primates, grooming is used to foster trust and bonding. In humans, there are nerves in the face which are probably connected to social touch. Touch, even if not noticed, can foster trust. In one experiment, a researcher in a social setting asked different individuals for their phone numbers- without a brief touch, the researcher received the digits 10% of the time, with a slight, unobtrusive touch, the success rate leapt to 20%. Another study found that table servers who lightly touched diners as they presented the check tended to get tips 2.5% higher than those who did not. Servers who rattled off a list of daily specials had a 40% chance to persuade diners to choose a special, with a touch accompanying the litany of specials, this increased to 60%.
Dr Mlodinow then went on to describe to constuction of one's sense of self, beginning this section of the lecture with an awesome quote by Salvador Dalí: "Every morning upon awakening, I experience a supreme pleasure: that of being Salvador Dalí, and I ask myself, wonderstruck, what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dalí."
In one study, 100% of high school students rated themselves as "above average". 94% of college professors tended to view themselves as above average. In another study, medical doctors who were asked to make a pneumonia diagnosis reported that they were 80% confident that their diagnosis was correct, while the actual success rate was 20% (no information about the self-rating of bloggers, though). In self-reporting grades, students reported 89% of A's, 64% of B's, 51% of C's and 29% of D's.
Dr Mlodinow then discussed motivated reasoning, and cited himself, a physicist who wrote a psychology book, as a test case- we use desires and prior beliefs to color our perception of what we may consider "objective" judgments. "Unfriendly" data, data which is antithetical to our prior beliefs, is often rejected.
Dr Mlodinow had the audience participate in two simple experiments- in the first, the audience was divided into two halves. Each half was shown an ad for a hotel in Tahiti, with identical photos and descriptions, but wildly different prices. The price shown to group one was $5,500 per night, the price shown to group two was $55 per night. The members of each group were asked to name a price they were willing to pay for the room, and an average was taken- group one's average price was around $2,500 while group two's was around $250. Numerical judgement also takes place in context- having a number in mind, even an implausible one, affects thinking and results in anchoring.
In the second experiment of the night, a list of words was presented on the screen, and read out by Dr Mlodinow and an assistant. Many of the words were words such as "cake", "candy", "chocolate"- afterwards, the audience was given a list of three words, and instructed to write down which words they remembered as being on the original list. Even though the word "sweet" was not on the list, many audience members perceived it as being on the list because of other words which were associated with the concept of sweetness.
The lecture was yet another Secret Science Club slam-dunk. I'd be remiss if I didn't write that the line for the lecture stretched all the way down the block, and the crowd spilled out of the main room into the front lounge, where the audio of the lecture was broadcast. Three years ago, when the lectures took place at the smaller Union Hall in Park Slope, I joked that the Secret Science Club would eventually have to meet in Madison Square Garden. Last night's attendance seemed to validate my prediction... unless maybe Brooklyn is chock full of McGuyver fans.