The Human Brain Picks up Subliminal Signals

By Eliza Strickland | August 27, 2008 4:05 pm

poker tableIt’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?

Image: iStockphoto

MORE ABOUT: decisions, learning
  • Jen Hawse

    As an avid poker player I agree that we are constantly reading subtle clues in our opponents as well as creating subtle clues around ourselves for others to read into. I’ve been told, “You don’t look very confident” when I have pocket Aces because I play into body language. This skill can be a better asset than pot odds or even having an actual good hand under your false demeanor. Bluffing, it’s what poker players do best.

  • Alonso Sarmiento

    Dear Sir.
    That ability is essential during a negotiation and has been known since the beginning of time. When two heads of enemy tribes gathered and the other wavered, at that time was dead. The same happens in these times, to get a job, get a contract or sell a product or service. Anyone who blinks, loses.

  • Anthony

    To Jen AKA wanna be master poker player. If you took some time to read the article you would know that you just made and “ass” of yourself. The article is not about bluffing, it is about subconscious acts. It is saying that Jen’s brain will observe other people bluffing without consciusly realizing it. This forum is for people who wish to talk about science, not dumb “asses” who want to gloat about their supposed skill in poker.

  • Mike Scirocco

    Was it Samurai who used to stare into one anothers eyes with their hands on their sword handle, often settling the duel without even drawing their swords, the loser could tell they would have been defeated just by gazing intently into his opponent’s eyes.

  • Auntiegrav

    The ability of science to detect the subtlety of nature is laughable.
    Read “The Lost Language of Plants” by Stephen Harold Buhner

    We are all connected by more chemical signals and intuitions than our imaginations can dream of. Finding them is easy. Knowing how to handle them is the problem.


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