Do Subliminal Self-Help Programs Work? (2): History


The history of subliminal information processing

The popular history of information processing without awareness, sometimes called shadowed or masked information and sometimes referred to as peripheral information, but commonly known by the public under one general label as subliminal communication, is really a history of modern manipulation.

Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders, which appeared in 1957, quotes from The Sunday Times an account of a New Jersey theater in which ice cream ads were flashed onto the screen during a movie showing. This resulted in an otherwise unaccountable increase in ice cream sales. The Times referred to this technology as sub-threshold effects.

Packard’s work warned of psychologists-turned-merchandisers and of the resulting psycho-seduction of the American consumer. From belief systems to product identification, Packard presented a case for persuasion through the art and science of motivational analysis, feedback, and psychological manipulation. Hidden Persuaders was the first open attempt to inform the general public of a potentially Orwellian means to enslave the mind and to do so surreptitiously.

Wilson Brian Key, in his books Subliminal Seduction, and Clam Plate Orgy, argues that not only are we being subliminally merchandised today, but the public has been subliminally seduced for hundreds of years. Key, a Canadian university professor, sums it all up in the title to a third book on the subject, Media Sexploitation.

Earliest Modern Reference

The history of subliminal self-help technology

In my own work, Subliminal Communication, I discussed the earliest modern reference I have found on the subject of subliminal communication. According to Benjamin Wolman, subliminal research is at least as old as Suslowa’s work in 1863 wherein he reported “an increase in the two-point discrimination threshold as a function of subliminal electrical stimulation,” (1973). In 1894 W. R. Dunham, M.D. wrote an interesting commentary on the subliminal mind and subliminal communication. Nearly one hundred years later, Dunham’s essay reads much like current research on the subject. In The Science of Vital Force, Dunham demonstrated the existence of both subliminal mind and subliminal communication.

One of Freud’s most important contributions... is the stark revelation that mankind is a mere particle of his potential.

One of Freud’s most important contributions to approaching the enigma known as the human condition is the stark revelation that mankind is a mere particle of his potential. Unconscious processes predetermine conscious choices and therefore behavior. Aggregates of attitude and behavior constitute personality. Personality is rather rigid, and consequently the human condition is an abysmal shadow of itself. What is more, according to Freud, it is inherently in conflict with itself.

A contemporary of Sigmund Freud, Dr. O. Poetzle, studied subliminal perception under exact laboratory conditions and discovered behavior effects days and weeks after the original stimuli.

Professor Benjamin B. Wolman’s modified categorization of subliminal stimuli, divides descriptive values into five criteria of awareness and unawareness. The stimulus is:

  1. Below the level of registration.
  2. Above the level of registration but below the level of detection.
  3. Above the level of detection and discrimination but below the level of identification.*
  4. Below the level of identification only because of a defensive action. (1973).

* Using Wolman’s categories, InnerTalk falls in category three.

Wolman makes several general statements regarding subliminal stimulation, having come to certain conclusions based upon his erudite research. Although maintaining a cautious stance, he asserts:

Subliminal stimulus does leave an influence upon the content of subsequent cognition.

  1. Subliminal stimuli have affected and can affect secondary process thinking.
  2. There are neurophysiological findings, which appear to concur with registration without awareness.
  3. Despite some failures of replication there are numerous instances where subliminal stimuli “can measurably influence a variety of subject’s subsequent behaviors.”
  4. Conscious thinking can be influenced by stimuli outside of awareness.

In 1981 Dr. Norman Dixon summarized over 748 references on subliminal stimulation in his scholarly book, Preconscious Processing. Dixon provides a model for understanding the flow of information and its entry to consciousness. According to his model, five factors govern whether a stimulus surfaces at a conscious level: direction of attention; signal strength; external noise level; internal noise level and signal importance (meaning).

First Amendment Rights

It is a First Amendment violation to use subliminal information without consent.

 The wrongful death action, brought against Judas Priest and CBS in Reno, has led to a judicial interpretation regarding subliminal communication and First Amendment rights. Judge Whitehead ruled that it was a First Amendment violation to use subliminal information without consent.

First Amendment rights have often been an issue when the jurisprudence process becomes involved with subliminal stimuli. The Honorable Jerry Carr Whitehead, District Judge in the State of Nevada, eloquently argues that subliminal communication violates First Amendment liberties when covertly or surreptitiously employed.

Whatever ultimate interpretations or direction of the controversy, one thing is quite certain, subliminals (used here as a noun referring to the general nature of their type of communication) are here to stay. 

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