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Scientific Evidence for Subliminal Messaging

Is there any scientific evidence to show subliminal messaging works?



James Vicary's false claims and subsequent withdrawal kicked off a controversy which ended many years later with the undisputed proof that subliminal messages are an effective approach to cause deep change within the human mind.



The public has, by and large, supported the idea of subliminal messaging. Their willingness to entertain the notion of subliminal messaging, albeit with a load of healthy scepticism, is actually quite extraordinary. This is despite the lack of support from clinicians. For most clinicians, Freud’s incarnation of a steamy, incestuous and violent subconscious has found less appeal as has time progressed. The subconscious is no longer considered to be a mysterious, uncontrollable entity within, but an automatic, behind the scenes governor of normal everyday functioning (Bargh, 2012; Mlodinow, 2012).

It generally accepted that your subconscious brain regulates more than just your heartbeat, sleep patterns and digestion. Your unconscious and emotional self are very much one in the same. Psychodynamic approaches focusing on the subconscious arguably took backstage in favour of the less bizarre and empirical cognitive behavioural methods (CBT).

Nonetheless, in the wake of the early controversy and public embarrassment of James Vicary, the true potential of subliminal messaging captured the imagination. Science fiction and fantasy writers pumped out good stories, TVs and Films, sustaining the idea in the public conscience. (Fatefully, Subliminal author Leonard Mlodinow actually wrote for the TV series Star Trek.) The concept endured not only because the idea felt right intuitively but because its tenets were also supported by our greatest thinkers going back to the year dot. Wundt, Carpenter, Pierce, Jung, Jastrow and James gave claim to the existence of the unconscious and hinted to its potential.

Current research

No longer is the debate centered on the existence of subliminal communication, but on why it works and how it is best induced.

Fuelled by the growing popularity and potential of subliminal messaging as a form of clinical therapy as well as the subject’s penchant for a blistering academic debate, research efforts renewed and matured. The tide swelled. By the mid-1980s there was a slew of research in the offing covering specific applications including weight loss (Silverman, Martin, Ungaro, & Mendelsohn, 1978), curing agoraphobia (Lee, Tyler & Horn, 1983), honing the accuracy of darts (Plumbo & Gillman, 1984), and influencing learning potential (Cook, 1985).

The Placebo Effect

The case for subliminal self-help messaging may have been severely weakened by the presence of a strong Placebo Effect. This was best represented by Greenwald, Spangenberg, Pratkanis & Eskena’s study which showed a strong Placebo Effect (1991) and later supported by a follow up study (Spangenberg, Obermiller & Greenwald, 1992). More recent research underscored the role of the Placebo Effect (Kouider & Dupoux, 2004). The workings of the Placebo Effect remain to date, one of the most elusive explanations of modern science.

The Placebo Effect is used to explain desired change, usually an improvement in a medical condition, even though no treatment is given. In controlled medical testing, sugar pills are usually given instead of the real medicine. This is so the study can rule out the Placebo effect – any improvement as a result of one thinking they are being treated.

In the case of the above mentioned studies, respondents reported significant improvement although their actual performance in the assigned task did not. This was no great revelation, as this quandary is also true of widely accepted chemical treatments such antidepressants and pain relief.

For example, depression can be cured with sugar pills if the subject believes they are antidepressants. Conversely and stranger still, is the lack of improvement reported by people who are administered antidepressants without their knowledge (Brooks, 2009). The Placebo effect is arguably common to all forms of treatment.

Moving beyond the Placebo Effect

Due to the misunderstood nature of the Placebo effect, a handful of alternative therapies still exist and remain very popular, blissfully trading on the Placebo Effect, with no scientific evidence to support their use. The purpose of the subliminal research from that moment on was to show that subliminal self-help is not one of them.

The debate chimed throughout the nineties and into the noughties. The tide of empirical support ebbed and flowed. The previously mentioned Placebo findings were refuted by the Hudesman, Page and Rautiainen study which showed subliminal stimulation enhanced real Maths proficiency (1992). It now appeared that Placebo wasn’t the only kid on the block. Subliminal messaging as a self-help technique was coming of age.

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Enter the most critically acclaimed series of subliminal messaging experiments, loosely referred to as the ‘symbiotic/oneness fantasies’. This line of research demonstrated that subliminal messaging could reduce anxiety levels (Talbot, Duberstein & Scott, 1991; Malik, Krasney, Aldworth & Ladd, 1996). They were proved subliminal suggestions and measured change occurring at a very deep level. This built on previous research concerning the potential for the treatment for smoking cessation (Palmatier & Bornstein, 1980) and Schizophrenia (Kaplan, Thornton & Silverman, 1985). Subliminal messaging wasn’t just about priming a simple set of superficial behaviours or skills.

So these studies, and others like them, were surely impressive. They could explain that (once the Placebo Effect is accounted for) subliminal messaging was associated with the desired result. They showed it worked but they could not explain or show how. What was required was convincing evidence that there was truly a clear divide between the conscious and unconscious and that it was this which was exploited by subliminal messaging.

Showing that subliminal messaging was associated with change wasn't enough

Without the ‘how’ they lacked the full picture to end debate with credibility.

Receiving Subliminal Stimuli

By this time, it had already been demonstrated many times that human senses acknowledged and were able to relay subliminal stimuli to the brain (that is the senses could pick up and send some form of signal to the brain). Physiological responses had been explored by Borgeat, Elie, Chaloult and Chabot (1985) who monitored changes in frontal EMG, skin conductance and heart rate.

In 1996, Harris, Salus, Rerecich and Larsen demonstrated that it is possible to be consciously aware of subliminal messages without being able to consciously identify the message content. This was an important step which put subliminal self-help back on the map. Subliminal self-help requires that the critical conscious mind is bypassed (and the message not consciously identified) before the creative unconscious can accept suggestions. It was the conscious mind which could filter out the new ideas.

The subconscious sensed the messages - but were they perceived?

Researchers were now assured that messages can be received by the brain, if only as signals devoid of interpretation.

Research really needed to know whether message content was hitting the mark and producing the desired neurological responses. This would explain how the improvement was being created. That is, messages needed to influence the parts of the brain where meaningful information is processed at an unconscious level. With subliminal researchers’ access to MRI, research took a huge leap forward. The amazing link between the reception of the stimuli and the measurable influence on the intended area of the brain flickered on screen, (Kouider Dehaene, Jobert & Le Bihan, 2007; Dupoux, de Gardelle & Kouider, 2008).

Subliminal messages received by the brain

This research proved that the messages received subliminally were sent to the appropriate part of the brain. With credit to fMRI, it was ‘so far so good’ for the case of subliminal self-help messaging but there were still missing pieces to the argument. It was still not known how meaningful this was.

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The Subconscious Perception of Information

The next step would be to determine what this unconscious influence could be. Is it akin to unconscious thought? The debate here, to some, is yet to be fully explored. What was clear from these studies is that some form of information is processed in the brain, but it is not readily apparent whether this process is semantic.

How are subliminal messages processed?

That is, from MRI studies we were unable to say whether the words used in messages, were interpreted and processed as some derivative of language in the brain.

To date, the most reasonable argument was evidenced by Van den Bussche, Notebaert & Reynvoet (2009) who concluded that the mode of thought depended upon the context of the messages used. In this study, the nature of the processing (semantic versus something else) was also linked to the type of influence the messages had upon desired effect. The following year, Davis, Kim & Barbaro (2010), strengthened the case for semantic processing. Their study demonstrated that the words which are selected for the message have significant impact. From these studies, it is reasonable to argue that subliminal messages are processed as words once they have reached the unconscious mind. The outcome of this is not absolutely critical for the case of subliminal messaging – but was helpful in gaining popular support.

Demonstrating subliminals in action

To date, it was shown that subliminal messages are received and are processed in the brain. It was still not properly demonstrated that these thoughts had influence on the individual. Alas, one final cornerstone of this research was missing. It came only very recently.

Psychological Traction

The most convincing evidence that subliminal messages impacts the relevant psychological processes came in 2012. Studies in May and June 2012 demonstrated that messages interacted with psychological constructs (in this case anxiety levels) and that some form of relationship existed, (Paul, Pope, Fennell & Mendl, 2012; Bustin, Quoidbach, Hansenne & Capa, 2012).

Our True Human Potential

When today’s scholars such as Dr. John Bargh (2006, 2012) look over their shoulders, they are greeted with a shift in academic discourse more in tune with public sentiment. They see a slow but sure tide of evidence supporting their ideas which back then, to some figures in the late 1970s, bordered on the paranormal. Though the waters of evidence are sometimes muddy and confusing to navigate, they are rising rapidly.
Science once again has caught up with human intuition (which ironically is the forte of the unconscious). Speculations of the great thinkers throughout the generations have been ratified by new technology.

Messages can indeed be relayed to the subconscious mind, received, and (in all likelihood) semantically processed and influence our conscious attitudes and behaviour. Subliminal MP3s have been popular for a long time, despite the lack of empirical evidence to explain how they work. Thanks to fMRI technology we now can observe how they work. This research is starting to teach us how it is best used, what it can and cannot achieve.

For some this is a brand new world of possibility. For some great thinkers and their adoring public (the author among them), a huge and welcome vindication.



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Bargh, J.A. (2012). Priming Effects Replicate Just Fine, Thanks In response to a ScienceNews article on priming effects in social psychology. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-natural-unconscious/201205/priming-effects-replicate-just-fine-thanks

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Silverman, L.H., Martin, A., Ungaro, R., & Mendelsohn, E. (1978). Effect of Subliminal Stimulation of Symbiotic Fantasies on Behavior Modification Treatment of Obesity. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 46(3), 432-441.

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