There is a lot of misinformation about “subliminal” everything. Subliminal perception, subliminal communication, subliminal cues, and so on. All areas of this subject seem to attract a good deal of quackery and balderdash.

All the misinformation adds new meaning to the phrase “subliminal seduction.” At every turn there are self-appointed “experts” spreading more and more misinformation on a subject they know very little about.

Here’s where most of this started. In 1957 a Detroit advertising executive named James Vicary conducted a fake scientific study in a movie theater. He exposed movie goers to embedded “subliminal advertising” in a film. They did not know they had been exposed to the subliminal messages. They had been very briefly “flashed” during the presentation of the movie.

The essence of Vicary’s messages was that the viewers were getting thirsty and hungry. They were not consciously aware of seeing the messages. If they were perceiving the messages, it was via subliminal perception. Evidently Vicary initially claimed the subliminal advertising worked. He claimed that that moviegoers subjected to the messages through subliminal perception bought drinks and popcorn than usual.

But in fact they did not. There was no increase in concession stand sales and the whole thing was labeled a sham. But Vicary’s escapade marked the beginning of interest in subliminal perception.

[Editorial note: In subsequent communication I have been reliably informed that Mr. Vicary did not himself make the specious claims. In fact he said he wished he had never tried the subliminal perception experiment. All of which goes to show how the distortions by an irresponsible and lazy popular press can be disastrous. My sympathies to Mr. Vicary. I have myself had experiences similar to his.]

What is Subliminal Perception?

The central concept here is subliminal perception. This is the perception of a stimulus – a light, say, or a sound like a bell – that is too weak to be perceived consciously. Even though the person is not aware of it, there can still be perception below the conscious level. At least until the strength of the stimulus drops too low even for that.

Imagine a single light bulb in an otherwise darkened room. A dimmer is connected to the light which can turn it down. As the bulb is dimmed it becomes harder to see. Depending upon a number of variables (nothing is ever simple, is it?) the bulb will become too dim to see. But that point will be reached before it is absolutely dark.

This is the point at which subliminal perception kicks in. This subliminal perception takes over. The light is still being seen but not consciously. It will continue to be subconsciously perceived.

This is the tricky part. The mind is still perceiving the light — “seeing” it — but the person consciously thinks he sees nothing. This is why it is called SUBliminal perception. (Limin in this usage means threshhold.)

Even subliminal perception has its limits, of course. Eventually the light becomes too weak even for subliminal perception.

All Five Human Senses have Subliminal Perception

In my example the stimulus was light from a light bulb. But it could be anything we humans are capable of sensing.

It could be a printed or spoken word, an image such as a drawing or a photograph, even an odor or taste. All five of our senses are capable of subliminal perception. (I don’t know anything about the recent alleged discovery of a sixth sense on the human tongue.)

My interest in subliminal perception – which began with embeds in advertising – came many years after Vicary’s attempted manipulation of subliminal perception.

I was turned onto subliminals by Wilson Bryan Key. Wilson and I were graduate students at the same university, although he preceded me by some years. He discovered subliminals embedded in advertising, primarily print advertising in popular magazines. I caught subliminal fever from him and spent an inordinate amount of time searching for subliminals buried in publications, usually in faces on magazine covers and in advertisements.

Dr. Key, I’m sorry to say, is no longer with us. But he did leave us with several books he wrote. The first, and to my mind the best, is Subliminal Seduction. It was about the advertising use of subliminals. It is a fascinating read if you can get your hands on a copy.

Although I was and remain fascinated by the use of subliminals in advertising, my interests were of a broader nature. My doctoral dissertation was a study of the subliminal transmission of personality markers in the human voice. I continued in that vein after graduation and spent a number of years researching various aspects of subliminal perception.

The real onset of my interest in subliminal communication began much earlier when I was a salesman “working my way through college,” as we used to say. I did not know much about what I was doing with subliminals, but I was able to use them in a novel, though clumsy, way. My use of subliminal communication made me an outrageously successful salesman. (More about that here.)

There were other behavioral scientists who also found the subject exciting and we had an active group of scattered researchers making regular discoveries and advances in the subject.

One of the first things we learned was that articulated subliminal discourse does not have any noticeable influence on people. That is, subject-predicate kinds of statements don’t work. To subliminally tell someone they are getting thirsty will make them no thirstier than whacking them with a bat.

Likewise with images. Vickery flashed images of beverages and treats, mostly popcorn, to no avail. He also flashed hot, arid looking desert scenes in an attempt to subliminally induce a thirst in the audience that would drive them to the concession stand for iced drinks. That did not have any effect either.

But there is one area, or way of using them, that is effective with subliminals, and that is as attention getters and importance markers.

There are a few key words and images that, when presented subliminally, mark what is being consciously perceived as important. It is important that they not be consciously perceived. If they are they lose their impact. They are not themselves commands or imperatives for action. They are merely good at getting subconscious attention and making any conscious directives more effective.

That is to say, a person who consciously hears a statement like, “You are happy!” is not likely to suddenly get happy. But the statement becomes more effective if reinforced through subliminal perception. That’s because a subliminally perceived attention getter adds importance and believability to the statement.

Confused? That’s because this is not intuitively obvious. Like many areas of subliminal perception, it sort of flies in the face of common sense.

Here’s a real life example to explain how this works.

Bear Images and Subliminal Perception

We found that images of bears are one of the small group of animals that almost universally have this “hey, listen up” effect on the subconscious mind. The kind of bear does not seem to make much difference so long as it is clearly a bear. Polar, brown, black, Wall Street, whatever.

When we flashed a picture of a bear to volunteers for, say, 1/5000th of a second, the consciously heard or read message that immediately followed it was more influential.

The volunteers didn’t know they had seen a bear. The duration of the picture was too brief, but it was long enough for them to get it through subconscious perception. Almost immediately or sometimes simultaneously the volunteers heard (and were aware of hearing) a command intended to influence their emotional status (“You are happy;” “You are bored;” “You are excited;” etc.).

Another group received the same commands under the same conditions. But instead of bears they were shown non-influential subliminal prompts. These were neutral pictures to which we are usually indifferent at the subconscious level. We called them our ho-hum set which included pictures of flowers, for example.

Subliminal perception of any picture in our ho-hum set was far less likely to increase responses to conscious statements.

Findings like this were extremely useful in practical applications that employ subliminal perception. We conducted research in all the hot topics like weight control, memory improvement, shyness, and so on.

Our experiments were so successful we eventually became a victim of them, in a manner of speaking. The volunteers in the experimental groups (those receiving the influential subliminal prompts) were happy with the results of their participation in the research and made no attempt to keep quiet about it.

The volunteers from the control groups (those who received the non-influential subliminal prompts) were understandably disappointed and wanted a chance to receive the same beneficial treatment as the experimental groups had.

This was a problem I really did not mind having and I started conducting training sessions, first with students then later with non-student adults. The first training group of 35 filled quickly and the numbers in successive groups went up from there. Within two years we had to make arrangements to use the auditorium at the Museum of Natural History in City Park. It accommodated 270 people and we still had to turn people away. For a long time I spent all my Saturdays there working with personal development groups.

During these sessions I and my assistants would make “suggestions” or “affirmations” (sounds better than “commands”) accompanied by a rhythmic, throbbing sound (the Psychosonic™ Rhythm) buried in which were spoken subliminals. The subliminals could be just barely heard by some people with very good hearing so it was necessary to make them consciously incomprehensible. How we eventually ended up doing that was pretty cool. We reversed the speech of the spoken subliminals.

Subliminal Perception and Reversed Speach

During those years of research we discovered that it is not uncommon for people to speak in reverse in their sleep. Some people do it a lot. If people can speak in reverse, I reasoned, then people can probably understand reversed speech. Turns out we can. (I know because we tested a lot of people with some fiendishly clever research.)

Next problem: The human mouth cannot actually make reversed speech; it can only approximate it. So could people understand speech spoken correctly then reversed electronically? Turns out we can on that one, too. (I know because … well, you know.)

We buried the subliminals, those critical words played backwards, in the Psychosonic Rhythm at a level of audibility necessary for people with normal or near-normal hearing.

[Aside: It has always amazed me how people who claim to be hard of hearing sometimes turn out to have the best subliminal perception. Kinda makes ya stop ‘n’ wunder, don’t it!]

So there you have it. Subliminals can be very helpful and powerful when used correctly, but they cannot make you do anything you don’t want to do, and they cannot hurt you. The next time someone tries to sell you some electronic magic elixer that is composed of subliminals they claim can transform your life overnight, you’ll know what they are full of. ♦

Charles E. Henderson, Ph.D.

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