If you’re like most people, you probably see some weird-looking flowers. Maybe you notice the bumblebee in the corner or a small blue bird sitting on a petal. Your eyes are taking in visual information and telling your brain, “We see some weird-looking flowers.”
Now look again and focus on the lower half of the image. See anything else?
How about the letters S-E-X?
If you look at the negative space between the stalks of the flowers, you can make out the word ‘SEX’ written in white. Didn’t see that one coming, did you?
Your brain didn’t either – well, part of it did. Nothing has changed about the image, but now the subliminal message hidden between the flowers has moved from the unconscious part of your brain to the conscious part. We “unmasked” the word by telling you where to look, allowing the visual stimulus to become strong enough to cross that cognitive threshold and turn this innocent bunch of flowers into a dirty teaching tool.
It’s this change of perception that fascinates Dr. Heather Berlin, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Dr. Berlin studies the neural underpinnings of consciousness and unconsciousness, that tantalizing space “in between” where Freudian slips, unnamed desires, and repressed memories live. Have you ever wondered why you accidentally called your girlfriend by your mom’s name? Or why whispering “pizza” into a friend’s ear while they sleep makes them crave Domino’s when they wake up? (That actually works – just ask Dr. Berlin’s husband.)
It’s because our brain doesn’t always let us know when it’s receiving new stimuli, meaning there’s a wealth of information stored between your ears that you have no memory of receiving. For instance, before we pointed out the word ‘SEX’ in the image, your brain still registered the subliminal message – it just didn’t feel like telling you. Dr. Berlin tries to figure out why that hidden message, even if it stays hidden, might cause you to go home and rent “Basic Instinct” tonight instead of “The Lion King.” You might think you’re suddenly a huge fan of Sharon Stone, but your unconscious brain – that other part – knows otherwise.
To learn more about how your brain works – and how freestyle rappers make up awesome lyrics on the spot – listen to the full You’re the Expert episode with cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin here.
-Lydia Dallett, Production Associate