For years, advertisers have been telling us that subliminal messages really don’t work. Think again. Takeo Watanabe and his colleagues at Boston University believe that subconscious learning is possible and that it may affect our conscious decisions without our realizing it.

They found that people who watched a pattern of subliminal dot movements during a trial were significantly better at picking it out later.

The finding challenges the idea that attention is an essential element of the learning process. ?Attention can make learning more efficient,? says Watanabe, ?but it?s not necessary.”

He dismisses gimmicks such as cassettes that say they can teach you while you sleep. But he speculates that listening to a foreign language being spoken at low volume – loud enough so that your brain can perceive it but not so loud that you are aware of it – could improve a person?s pronunciation and listening skills. ?It could be useful,? he says.

Watanabe?s team asked volunteers to name certain letters presented on a screen. Behind the letters, it appeared that a group of dots danced randomly. But in fact, one in 20 shared a definite direction that was just below the threshold of conscious perception.

The volunteers did this letter-naming task for an hour every day for a month. Then they were asked to do another series of tests that involved watching moving dots and identifying any underlying pattern, such as whether two displays of dots moved in the same direction. In both cases only about one in 10 dots were moving in a definite pattern, movement that was just below the conscious threshold of perception. They discovered that the people who watched dots moving in a particular direction during the first series of tests were much better at picking it out later. ?I think it?s one of the nicest sets of data I?ve seen for learning outside of perceptual awareness,? says Phil Merikle, at the University of Waterloo in Canada. ?This perceptual learning is influencing how they see the world.? The study proves that subconscious learning may affect our conscious decisions without our knowing it.

Says Merikle, ?It?s what advertisers have known all along: if we just keep the exposure rate up, people will be influenced.?

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