Who's In Charge? You or Your Unconscious Mind?


Published: 17 November 2016

In what has become a well-known hoax from 1957, a marketing consultant by the name of James Vicary claimed that by briefly flashing the words ‘eat popcorn‘ and ‘drink Coca Cola‘ on screen during a movie, he was able to manipulate people into buying these products, even though the words were flashed too quickly to be consciously perceived (Love 2011).

While this ‘subliminal advertising‘ was a hollow claim at the time, it has since been recognised that our environment does have effects on our unconscious mind, influencing our behaviours and perceptions. This is a process that occurs automatically and over which we have little or no control, however it may be a process that we, as health professionals, can use to our advantage.

The Subliminal or Unconscious Mind?

Scientists have been exploring the concept of the unconscious mind since the mid ’90s, using functional MRI scans in order to try and pinpoint its location in the brain. What they’ve discovered is not one single structure, but a collection of many different, independent or sometimes inter-dependent modules that are inherently inaccessible to our conscious mind. Our unconscious mind is continually taking in data, and feeding it into our conscious deliberations without our knowing it. This affects all of our experiences and judgements, including what we buy, who we fall in love with, and how we see and taste.

The Power of Touch

Most of us know how powerful touch can be – a simple hug can sometimes be much more healing than the spoken word. Not only do we form social bonds through touch, but it aids our understanding of, trust and co-operation with, other people. In Mlodinow’s study (2013), three handsome men were asked to stand on different street corners and proposition every single young woman that walked by. While they had to use identical words each time, they were to quickly (¼ – ½ sec) and lightly touch just half the women on either the forearm or shoulder while speaking to them.  This increased the likelihood of them being provided with the woman’s phone number from 10% to 20%, and when the women were intercepted after the exchange, barely any of them remembered being touched. Although we may not consciously perceive being touched, it still feeds into our perception of an experience.

  • As health professionals, are we able to use the power of touch to improve the trust our patients have with us?
  • Can we use the power of touch to calm and reassure our patients?

the power of touch and the unconscious mind

A Musical Influence

Music too, is able to influence us through our unconscious minds. Research by North et al. (1999) was undertaken to see whether music played in a store influenced shoppers’ purchases. A store that sold German and French wines of comparable quality and price alternated days of quietly playing German and French music in that area. The study found that on the days German music was played, two thirds of customers bought German wine, and that there was a similar increase in French wine purchases on the days that French music was played. Customers were interviewed after making their purchases and the majority of them didn’t remember hearing the music, and certainly none of them believed it had influenced their wine-buying decision.

It is well known that moods and emotions are stimulated and influenced by music – another unconscious process.

As health professionals how can we use the influence of music on an individual to our advantage?

What music do you play in your waiting room or office? And what kind of effect do you think it has on your productivity and the way you interact with other people, as well as on the mood of your patients?

There are plenty of other examples of how our unconscious mind can influence our behaviours, for example waiting rooms are often painted green as it is supposed to be a calming colour. Advertisers and marketing firms have certainly taken advantage of the growing knowledge around the unconscious mind, so perhaps it’s time the health industry does the same.

Can you think of other examples of how we can positively influence our patients? What about waiting room design; department smells; medicine taste?

[show_more more=”Show References” less=”Hide References” align=”center” color=”#808080″]


  • Love, D 2011, The Shocking Drink and Incredible Coke History of Subliminal Advertising, Business Insider Australia, 27 May, viewed 17 November 2016, http://www.businessinsider.com.au/…-1
  • Mlodinow, L 2013, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, Vintage Books.
  • North, AC, Hargreaves, DJ & McKendrick, J 1999, ‘The Influence of In-Store Music on Wine Selections’, Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 84, no. 2, pp. 271-76, viewed 17 November 2016, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/apl/84/2/271/