Do subliminal tapes played while you sleep really work?

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Dear Cecil: A couple years ago a friend of mine who owns a small recording studio mentioned that a client wanted to record a bunch of different subliminal messages on separate tracks and then mix them all down into one hodgepodge under ocean waves or some other masking sound. The idea was that the unconscious mind could sort out and soak up all this knowledge, reprogramming your brain for better golf scores, better relationships, an end to smoking or procrastination, financial independence, enhanced sex, and anything else they felt like including. More recently, while flipping through the UHF channels, I discovered some success motivation lecturer types offering their own subliminal tapes with hundreds of multilayered, multitracked affirmations to improve every aspect of your life. It all smacks of snake-oil salesmen selling rose-colored water from the back of a medicine wagon to me. What’s the straight dope on the unconscious mind’s ability to absorb even one subliminal message, much less hundreds at one time? Is it really possible to reprogram my head? Ken, Panorama City, California


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Having once participated in a four-year study of the unconscious mind’s ability to absorb subliminal messages (in those days it was called “going to college”), I can assure you the technology ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. However, things have come a long way in the last few years. While it’s doubtful that subliminal cassette tapes do much besides lighten your wallet, there’s a considerable body of evidence to suggest that subliminal messages can improve performance under some conditions. A couple years ago researchers Lloyd Silverman and Joel Weinberger published a paper summarizing numerous experiments, the gist of which was that if you flashed a certain message before and after some other, more conventional training technique (e.g., antismoking therapy), you greatly enhanced the therapy’s effectiveness.

Now things start to get weird. The most effective message is said to be “Mommy and I are one.” This is supposedly because “there are powerful unconscious wishes for a state of oneness with `the good mother of early childhood’ … and gratification of these wishes can enhance adaptation,” according to Silverman and Weinberger.

The general reaction to this on the part of the scientific community (to the extent that it noticed at all) was yeah, right. But S&W pointed out the following facts: (1) psychologically neutral messages, such as “people are walking,” have no effect; (2) disturbing messages, such as “Destroy Mother,” have a negative effect, at least on psychiatric patients; and (3) in areas such as the south where the usual term of affection is “Mama” rather than “Mommy,” “Mommy and I are one” has no effect.

A typical case of “mommy therapy” in action involved a weight-watchers’ program. For two months subjects participated in weekly half-hour sessions of conventional therapy involving calorie counting and whatnot. Before and after each session subjects were asked to imagine a situation in which they would overeat. A four-millisecond subliminal message was then flashed, with half getting the “mommy” message and half a neutral message. Both the “mommies” and the controls lost weight during the program. However, a month after the therapy ended, it was found the “mommies” continued to lose weight, whereas the controls were starting to inch back upward.

In another study, Israeli high school students who were exposed to the “mommy” message four times a week for six weeks did better in a math course than a control group. Similar results from other classroom experiments have also been reported.

To be sure, there have also been studies that failed to replicate the “mommy” effect. Also, the research to date involves visual stimuli, not audio ones. And nobody is claiming that just any old subliminal message — e.g., the infamous “Drink Coke” — will cause behavioral changes. So I wouldn’t waste my dough on tapes just yet. But you never know.

Cecil Adams

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