01 November 2007

Prime Time: When Your Unconscious is Thinking You

Unconscious priming--or subliminal priming--is a fascinating topic of cognitive science that is receiving more attention lately.
In a study that appeared in the journal Science in May, a team of English and French neuroscientists performed brain imaging on 18 men and women who were playing a computer game for money. The players held a handgrip and were told that the tighter they squeezed when an image of money flashed on the screen, the more of the loot they could keep.

As expected, the players squeezed harder when the image of a British pound flashed by than when the image of a penny did — regardless of whether they consciously perceived the pictures, many of which flew by subliminally. But the circuits activated in their brains were similar as well: an area called the ventral pallidum was particularly active whenever the participants responded.

“This area is located in what used to be called the reptilian brain, well below the conscious areas of the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Chris Frith, a professor in neuropsychology at University College London who wrote the book “Making Up The Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World.”

The results suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which the ventral pallidum is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, if at all, Dr. Frith said.

In "bottom-up" decision-making, subliminal cues "prime" the sub-conscious mind toward a particular response set. Curiously, the effect of sub-conscious priming can last for many years.
Black and white drawings were shown to people during an experiment in 1982. Seventeen years later, the same people (and some more used as a control) have been asked by mail to answer questions about drawings, some of them identical to the ones they had seen 17 years ago, and some different. The people who had participated in the first experiment were primed: they answered more easily to the questions related to the drawings they had seen 17 years ago, whereas the control participants showed no such difference. A funny thing is that some of the participants were unable to consciously remember the first study! They vaguely remembered having participated in psychology experiments, but nothing about this one in particular.Source

Some research has suggested that "priming God" may increase altruistic behaviour. An interesting discussion of this research can be found here.

Combining the bottom-up, subliminal decision making involved in "priming", with the long time duration of priming effects, and possible behavioural effects of "priming God," it is easy to see that many "character traits" of long term and habitual behaviours, might be influenced by early childhood "priming." In other words, decision making that you may feel reflects conscious higher-brain decision-making, may actually come from the lower reptilian brain unconscious--controlling-ghosts from the past.

Combatants in cultural and ideological wars are exquisitely aware of the "mental programming" effects of subliminal priming, and use various techniques in attempts to eradicate past programming to allow present and future programming. Certainly the modern academic lobotomy practised in most university liberal arts and social science programs--heavy slanting of the presentation in favour of one particular point of view, while preventing a balanced presentation of alternative POVs--suggests an attempt at eradicating old programming to clear the way for new programming. Other terms for this re-education process include "consciousness-raising" and "brainwashing."

Early childhood priming can be extremely powerful and long-lasting, resistant to most attempts to change. New methods of studying priming will inevitably be accompanied by new methods of changing "dysfunctional" priming. Crude psychiatric treatments such as electro-convulsive therapy persist in the treatment of intractable depression--even expand into treatment for other conditions such as schizophrenia--because they appear to get results. But less potentially damaging treatments such as targeted low-amplitude electromagnetic brain stimulation offer a more finessed approach to both research and treatment.

While pathologies such as PTSD, Panic, Phobias, etc. represent "priming effects," it is also likely that less well defined counter-productive behaviours that obstruct a person's happiness and success are also a result of priming.

Certainly the "hyper-judgmental" attitudes observed in assembled crowds (see almost any "Oprah" or similar show), reflect a more ominous phenomenon seen in "lynch mobs." The public physical and verbal attacks made on E.O. Wilson, and other intellectual messengers bringing unpopular and non-PC messages reveal similar dysfunctional primings within the attackers. The same priming pathology is seen in violent abortion clinic attackers, muslim suicide bombers, and college professors who verbally assault and grade-discriminate against students who may diverge from the professor's particular prejudices.

It is not that some people are guilty of being influenced by priming prejudice while others are not. It is that some have never confronted their priming prejudices at all. They were indoctrinated, but never worked and fought their way through and beyond the indoctrination. Whether Islamist fanatics, eco-terrorists, clinic bombers, campus PC Thought Police, or members of seemingly benign ideological movements to "shape the minds" of entire generations toward more "correct" ideologies, these practitioners of censorship, destruction, and mental stunting are "true believers" who are still functioning on their subliminal priming, unexamined.

We have the popular mental image of the "zombie," stalking stiffly across the landscape, unconsciously seeking its targets. It is not such a stretch to overlay the zombie image onto the eager ideologue, seeking minds to program.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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