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

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.

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.

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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.

These two pictures are of Barack Obama. And they probably both look more or less like Barack Obama, but let me show you what happens when I turn them over? Because the part of your brain that focuses on faces, and helps you to understand and identify faces, doesn’t really work for upside down faces because we are not used to seeing people upside down. So, it evolved for right side up faces. Look, what happens when I turn it over.

So, now you can see that the picture on your right is very deformed, the picture on the other side is not. Now, watch, as I turn it back over, they look again kind of normal. So, this is your unconscious mind at work, and then not at work.

Let me give you now another example from hearing to show you that hearing works in a similar way or analogous way to vision in how you use, for instance, context. Here is an old song that you may recognize by Led Zeppelin. It should be playing right now. Audio? Well, these are the words to the old song, so you don’t really have to hear the forward part, but I need to get the audio going before the next slide. Anybody? Is the audio going to work now? [Song plays] There we go! All right. You can trust me that that was the song playing and these are the words. But the question is, when I play this song backwards, are you going to understand words? Was the group Led Zeppelin smart enough to design a song that makes sense both forward and backward? So, I want you to listen to this audio. Let your ears process it and see if you can understand the words. I apologize, if you don’t speak English, this may be a little difficult. [Song plays] So, is this making sense? I bet it’s not, whether you speak English or Turkish. When you hear the song backward, it sounds like gibberish.

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But now I’m going to play the song again for you and I’m going to give you context. Just like you saw the squares differently when I put the checkerboard there and when I took them away, I’ll put a checkerboard here, and now I am going to put some words here. You follow along with the words and listen to the same audio again, and see if you don’t hear these words. [Audio plays] So, now you heard the same thing that you heard before, but you heard a different reality.

Now you heard words and before you heard gibberish. So, which is it? Well, they really didn’t make these words backwards, but we take the music, and we match words that sound like the backward song. And when you have that context, your brain makes you think that it’s really there. So, this is an example of your unconscious processing at work again! I’m going to play again a little bit of the song for you, but just to show how automatic this is, I’m going to play the song, with the words again, the backward song. I want you to listen to it and read the words, but don’t hear the words! Try and hear as you did the first time, as gibberish. [Audio plays]

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