Exciting new research shows that subliminal messages do reach the brain, although their impact on behavior has yet to be demonstrated.

Scientists at the University College London (UCL) have found the first physiological evidence that invisible subliminal images do attract the brain’s attention on a subconscious level. The findings challenge previous scientific assumptions that consciousness and attention go hand-in-hand.

“What’s interesting here is that your brain does log things that you aren’t even aware of and can’t ever become aware of,” Bahador Bahrami from the UCL said. “We show that there is a brain response in the primary visual cortex to subliminal images that attract our attention without us having the impression of having seen anything. (From Subliminal messages ‘impact on brain’ – original linked page gone. See similar content at Subliminal advertising leaves its mark on the brain.)

In one sense, this isn’t a huge surprise. Our past posts on priming, for example, show the impact of information that is assimilated unconsciously. And anyone who has read Malcom Gladwell’s Blink knows that the unconscious mind takes in a whole lot more than one might expect.

Still, it’s exciting to see proof that truly subliminal messages are processed by the brain. Certainly, it would be interesting to better understand the impact of these messages – would people actually act on a message to “Buy Coke”, for example? To some degree, this is of mostly academic interest. It’s hard to imagine regulatory bodies viewing insertion of subliminal messages as acceptable. Nevertheless, understanding how the brain handles subliminal messages will be of interest not only to neuromarketing devotees but the broader group of psychologists, neuroscientists, and marketers.

Related paper: Attentional Load Modulates Responses of Human Primary Visual Cortex to Invisible Stimuli.

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