It’s a demonstration of unconscious brain power: A new neuroscience study shows that people can make decisions based on input that is invisible to the conscious mind. Researchers say the findings aren’t evidence of the efficacy of subliminal messages, which have mostly been discredited. But there has been a more subtle phenomenon, billed as the foundation of intuition, where seasoned poker players may play more successfully because they can pick up subtle signals in the body language of their opponents – without consciously realising it – to work out if they are bluffing [Telegraph].
In the study, published in the journal Neuron [subscription required], test subjects were repeatedly shown brief abstract animations before being asked whether they wanted to take a gamble, which could either earn or lose them a small amount of money. The animations had hidden symbols that indicated whether the subject would win or lose on the subsequent bet; over time, test subjects got better at predicting whether they would win or not.
A functional-MRI brain scanner showed activity in the volunteers’ striatum, a region associated with conscious risk-taking, and then activity in visual-processing areas. Lead researcher Mathias Pessiglione hypothesises that the striatum tells the vision-processing part of the brain how to pick up on the subliminal symbols linked to winning and losing [New Scientist].
Cognitive neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes says the study shouldn’t ring alarm bells: “[W]e shouldn’t be worried that we could be influenced against our will by such unconscious processes: the study shows that the unconscious brain is intelligent enough to select the best options,” he says. Pessiglione, too, is not planning to use his team’s findings to hawk shampoos, cars or presidential candidates. “Our prospect is not to help advertisers take advantage of consumers,” he says [New Scientist].
DISCOVER has a brief history of this sneaky and controversial advertising tactic: “Whatever Happened to Subliminal Advertising?”