How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow (Transcript)

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Physicist Leonard Mlodinow discusses on How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior at TEDxReset 2013 conference.

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Leonard Mlodinow – Physicist

Hi there. Let’s start. You may have heard of speed dating or speed interviews, we’ll do a speed experiment, so, I’m just going to get on with it. It’s voluntary and it’s anonymous, so you don’t have to do it, but if you do it, don’t worry about how you do. There is no right or wrong. If you see yourself on this side of me, of my line here, you call yourself you are in group number one. And if you are on this side, you are in group number two.

And the important thing is I’ll show you some slides and you answer on the slips that you have in front of you, and just do everything silently. So, first, group two, turn away from the screen, so you don’t see it, if you wish to participate. So turn away, so you don’t see what is going to be projected.

And, group number one, here we go! Please, read this question silently and answer it.

Okay. Now, please, read this question silently and answer this question. Sorry to rush you, but if you can get your answers down, we’ll move on.

Now, group one, please put your group number at the top of the slip and circle it and turn away from the screen now. And group two, you can turn toward the screen. And are we ready?

Please, read this question silently and answer it. Now, please, read this question silently and answer this one.

If you finished up, please, write your group number at the top of your slip and circle it. And everyone can turn forward again. And if you are in group one, pass your slips toward this aisle. And if you are in group two, pass your slips toward this aisle. They’ll be collected, and we will get to them later in the talk.

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So, let’s talk about your unconscious mind, and let’s begin by talking about what I mean by the ‘unconscious.’ So in modern science, what we mean by the ‘unconscious’ are processes that go on in your brain that are automatic. They don’t take any effort, they’re beyond your awareness, so you don’t know they are happening, and they are mostly beyond your control. And because of this, we don’t really understand what is influencing our thoughts, our perceptions, our feelings, our judgments, so that has a huge effect on our behavior.

But I want to contrast the modern unconscious with the Freudian or the Jungian unconscious. And what we mean by the unconscious in modern science today is our mental processes that are outside of our control and our awareness because of the structure of our brain. It’s not the Freudian unconsciousness which was hidden for emotional reasons and that could be revealed through introspection or through therapy. This unconsciousness is totally different from that traditional idea of the unconscious.

And the field that I’m going to talk about is called social neuroscience. It is a new field that has just begun in about the last ten years, and it’s a combination of three fields: one is Social Psychology, which is the psychology of how people interact with each other. The second is Cognitive Psychology which is the psychology of how people think. And the third is something completely different; it’s neuroscience, especially neuroscience using modern technology, such as fMRI technology which images your brain and can show what parts of your brain are functioning, as you have thoughts, feelings, perceptions, as you make decisions. And this kind of technology has revolutionized psychology because prior to this, of course, we couldn’t look into the brain to see what was actually going on, and psychology was kind of a soft science. But this has made psychology much more of a hard science because we can connect brain mechanisms and structures to the behavior we see.

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So, I’m going to talk today about the unconscious in two realms. The first is the realm of physical perception, hearing and seeing. And the reason I’m going to talk about that is, partly, because, of course, it’s very important to how we survive and interact in our environment, and partly, because all the processes, some of which are very complex, that have to do with your social perception, are similar or analogous to the same processes that happen in your hearing and your vision, which we can illustrate very clearly.

And I want you to come away with this lesson, that our perceptions, both our visual and our physical perceptions, and also our social perceptions of other people, and situations, in life and business are very much affected by our unconscious. That what we perceive, isn’t really the data that is literally out there, but it’s a construction that our minds make using our imagination. It’s not really what is there.

This is an example from sight. This is just a typical scene of a road side view that you might see if you are driving down the road. And it’s what we normally perceive. It’s very clear. But now I’m going to show you a slide that is made from the data that actually hits your retina. So, this slide I am about to show you is what you would perceive, if there was no unconscious processing if you saw, literally, the optical data that hit your retina. And, as you can see, it’s very fuzzy. It’s a little bit clearer towards the center and outside it’s very fuzzy. And the reason that you don’t have this horrible vision and bump into things, and fall off cliffs, etc., is that your unconscious mind, automatically, with no effort, immediately processes that data and gives you the clear image.

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And when it processes the data, it uses not only, of course, the data that is there, but it uses other things, it makes its best guess, and it uses things like your expectations, your desires, and your beliefs. So, let’s see, how that works.

One of the things that it also uses is the context. And I’m going to illustrate that here. If you look at the squares A and B, A looks like a dark square, and B looks like a light square. That’s not really what’s going on. A and B are identical. The optical data that’s coming to your eye from square A and B are exactly the same. They only look different because your unconscious processing is taking the fact that there is a shadow there, and there is a checkerboard; and it’s presenting you with what looks like a real image.

As I remove the context, you can see what happens. Now you can see that they are both the same. So this is an illustration of how your unconscious mind helps you to see things in an environment that will make sense. Now, notice the automaticity! That you can’t overcome this. If you look at the square, if you look at the checkerboard, you cannot see A and B being the same, even though if you look at A and B on the white background, you see that they are.

Here is another example. Humans are very social creatures. So, facial processing is very important to identify people, and also to tell what people are thinking and what they intend to do. And because we are social creatures, and we have to get along as we evolved, a lot of our mental processes in our brain evolved to help us to get along with other people and to understand them.