September 10, 2008

Scientists Find Evidence For The Unconscious

memory pairs small.JPG
Not exactly, but follow along with me.

14 subjects were shown 3000 pictures,  3 seconds each.  Then, they were shown pairs of objects-- one was the previously seen, the other never seen-- and they had to pick out which one they saw. (pdf of article here.)

The pairs were of three types: paired with something completely different; paired with something of the same type; and paired with an altered version of the same picture.

memory pairs.jpg

3000 images-- viewed once-- over the course of two to three hours--  and the subjects were able to correctly pick out the previously seen image 87-92% of the time.  Absolutely wow.

Granted, this is a paired identification, and not an uncued recall ("list everything you saw.")  But what it suggests is that nearly everything you see is in your brain, somehow/where, at least for a while.

If it's in there, then your brain is making  associations with it.

If it is making associations, then its presence is affecting the how/when/why of the "recollection" of something else, just as the how/when/why of the recollection of that object is influenced by what came before it.

Example: are you storing it as a picture (the basket of grapes) or as an action ("object tipped over")?  If the latter, perhaps it would have been harder to differentiate it from an overturned basket of bananas then an upright basket of grapes.  And that is influenced by whether your life is one of grapes or of overturned stuff.

So that random guy in the red shirt you didn't notice from last week when you were eating ice cream is in your brain, and he's being used to make an association to something else.  So, for example, Manchurian Candidate style, when you next see a red shirt, you get hungry.

You don't realize the red shirt made you hungry, either.  You just feel hungry "for no reason."

Or it could go the other way-- maybe you suddenly like guys in red.  Or maybe you hate them.  etc.

Perhaps that's why free association seems so powerful.  The trick is to bring unconscious associations into consciousness.  That way, you get to choose whether or how it affects you.

Everything you experience-- life, books, images, dreams, sounds, and things you did not even notice you experienced-- becomes part of you, and it matters.  We make fun of the white kid who is "pretending" to be all gangsta-- "he's a suburban kid from Irvine!"-- but that "fake" experience actually matters.  Certainly less than a kid who lead a real gangsta life, but more than someone who never imagined living it.

IAnd it probably extends beyond identity to ability, and it speaks to the power of  visualization.  Who's more accurate with an M16 rifle: the 19 year old who's watched action movies his whole life, but never touched a gun or rifle; or the 19 year old who's watched no movies and never held a gun? 

Everything that happens matters; we just don't know how.

You can't control a red shirted guy passing by you; but you can control, say, what you watch on TV, and how; who you talk to, what you talk about, how you do or do not decide to pay parking tickets. 

It's very hard to understand why we think things, why we do things, why we are who we are.  Root causes are never fully understood, probably are outright misleading the rest of the time.  But what you do have control over, every moment, isn't the why, but the what. 

(BTW, if seeing an image in your mind can affect you, imagine what a fake image can do.)


Interesting. Thank you. W... (Below threshold)

September 11, 2008 5:33 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Interesting. Thank you. Would you mind correcting the spelling of unconscious in the title? Thank you.

Alone's response: God damn it!!!!!!! (fixed.)

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This reminds me of another ... (Below threshold)

September 11, 2008 5:50 PM | Posted by Manipulated By Association: | Reply

This reminds me of another study regarding how we pick up associations but do not connect a "not" in our associations. Basically, the very act of denying X = Y reinforces the relationship between X and Y. Even if you remember the "not" for a time, down the road when the memory is less important, you still remember the association.

In politics and media, this makes singular soundbytes especially powerful, no matter how true or false the statements are. Simply repeating the statement multiple times in the positive and the negative reinforces the associations. And as you pointed out, you may not even consciously realize the source of that relationship or the context around it.

Is there a good defense against these mental associations? How do you purposefully "forget" an association once you have discovered it is false?

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Any chance that you could p... (Below threshold)

September 11, 2008 9:20 PM | Posted by Stephe: | Reply

Any chance that you could post a reference to the original article / study - this is great, and I would like to tell more folk about it, but would obviously prefer a direct cite as well...

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This is an AMAZING study. T... (Below threshold)

September 12, 2008 9:53 AM | Posted by Hairstyle: | Reply

This is an AMAZING study. Talk about genius.

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I cannot find the original ... (Below threshold)

September 12, 2008 12:36 PM | Posted by Manipulated By Association: | Reply

I cannot find the original article I read, but this one seems to be referring to the same studies (which are referenced):

In between this study and the studies about misattribution (discussed on a layman level here --, the understanding is that false statements can be confused as true statements if they are repeated by multiple sources. We forget about the sources anyway, and if we forget about the "not", the statement becomes true in our minds.

One solution to this problem, I am guessing, might be to try to attach a strong denying-like emotion to the memory. That would reinforce the memory, but it would also give guidance on the truth of the memory. I wonder what would happen if the original studies are retried with the idea of adding in the influence of negative and positive emotions.

Any thoughts?

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Very nicely written. To me... (Below threshold)

September 12, 2008 1:08 PM | Posted by Dave: | Reply

Very nicely written. To me, your conclusions ring true. I've been in psychotherapy for 3 years around issues of MDD and of PTSD (apologies for the alphabet soup) due to prolonged childhood abuse and poly drug addiction. At one point my therapist said I needed to stop "pathologizing" my current experiences, re-focus on what was improving, what was positive and what I could change. It was one of a handful of pivotal movements for me. Thanks for the post.

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That's very sad .... but it... (Below threshold)

September 13, 2008 11:56 AM | Posted by Alex: | Reply

That's very sad .... but it rings so true

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Sadly, this study will be u... (Below threshold)

September 14, 2008 10:46 AM | Posted by medstudent: | Reply

Sadly, this study will be used by those that seek to excuse choices. To paraphrase the psych, we can chose what we do. And at the end of the day that is what counts. Having said that, I'm more interested in implications this has for memory and learning. Maybe that is because I spend most of my day learning. If those 8 hours of daily lectures are in there somewhere it would be nice to be able to better pull them out.

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If you're seriously interes... (Below threshold)

September 15, 2008 8:39 PM | Posted by Pam : | Reply

If you're seriously interested in this subject, I strongly recommend checking out the personality information provided on, and the research set forth in "Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious" by Timothy D. Wilson which is cited to extensively in pop fave "Blink" by Malcom Gladwell. For the record (because I'm a lawyer), I have no commercial or professional relationship with either. Just found the information extremely valuable.

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Being a computer programmer... (Below threshold)

September 17, 2008 12:05 PM | Posted by Joseph Bergevin: | Reply

Being a computer programmer, I view the brain in a similar fashion to computers. It's constructed differently, but it's still subject to the same laws in regard to the storing and manipulation of information. The brain can't fabricate information de novo, it can only store and combine what it gets from the environment. Every experience is compared to prior matching stimuli for salience to achieving basic drives. When the right input comes along, we can then anticipate an outcome, a process which we experience as thought. Thought seems to be the result of all this subconscious switchboarding. Seeing a guy in a red shirt indeed primes us to form thoughts which involve experiences tied to all the other red shirt guys we've seen. It's automatic, like a computer. There's no one driving the car, just a constant stream of associations - an obsessive retelling of who we are and what we think we'll do.

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"Sadly, this study will be ... (Below threshold)

September 17, 2008 12:12 PM | Posted, in reply to medstudent's comment, by Anonymous: | Reply

"Sadly, this study will be used by those that seek to excuse choices"

Possibly, but it won't change other people's expectations of them. It won't change the reward they get from doing the right thing. As long as social norms are still enforced, the payoffs for a given behavior will remain the same. Blaming one's subconscious doesn't have social currency.

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"The brain can't fabricate ... (Below threshold)

September 26, 2008 5:13 PM | Posted by MedsVsTherapy: | Reply

"The brain can't fabricate information de novo, it can only store and combine what it gets from the environment."

This methodology, and these phenomena, have been recognized for a long time - decades. However, it is not the case that the associations simply accrue and thus compose our experience, beliefs, or motivations. They do contribute. But they contribute in certain ways, or down certain pathways - pathways of meaning and interpretation, not in the sense of neurological pathways, although neurology is involved somehow.

If you eat a meal, then get sick the next day, there are typically SOME recently eaten foods that you will suspect as being "bad", and some that you will NOT. I heard this in lecture in the 1980s. Thankfully, Wikipeida has a decent entry:

"Sauce Bearnaise phenonenon:" If you ate Sauce Bearnaise last night, and ate a jalapeno, you are more likely to suspect the Sauce Bearnaise, and / or develop an aversion to the SB rather than the carrot. Yet in a true, bottom-up, Pavlovian model, each would equally be likely for a new association.

The "Phi Phenomenon" is another classic example:
It is almost impossible to resist the perception that sequentially illuminated lights, in a row, is not actually a "light" that is "moving" or traveling." This knowledge, and research paradigm, is decades old.

Our brains are "primed" or "formatted" to readily learn some things, while failing to learn other associations that would be predicted by a purely empirical, Pavlovian theory.

We are not a blank slate passively observing random associations in order to benefit from the witnessing of many coincidences to begin to detect and coalesce patterns into bits and pieces of knowledge, which would then take more trials / episodes / experiences to coalesce into any coherent, worthwhile pieces or handfuls of knowledge.

Our tendency is to naturally over-value certain random associations and undervalue those tthat truly are causally related: hence my belief that my out-of-town neices are "good-luck" for my local ball team (my team is 2-for-2 on their visits and attendance), and the off-track beliefs of many of us clinicians who start to "see" or suspect diagnoses based on a couple tip-offs, such as missing the first appt. or the degree of make-up worn.

In short, the brain does fabricate information de novo. Usually fairly close to reality, but also at odds with reality some of the time. Our brains use "heuristics" to accrue "knowledge" (actually, to accrue a workable facsimile thereof).

Fascinating, yes. It is nice to see any psychiatrist start to figure out the smarts of the psychologists, rather than forming the false, Pavlovian association that psychologists are wanna-be physicians.

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<a href="http://blog.myspac... (Below threshold)

September 27, 2008 10:59 AM | Posted by minas: | Reply
check this out for a different approach on psychiatric illness.

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Thus Althusser. ... (Below threshold)

December 26, 2013 2:00 AM | Posted by J: | Reply

Thus Althusser.

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