Alan Kirker


December 27th, 2021 by

Beyond supraliminal presentations of symbols and tropes, however seductively disguised, professor Jane Caputi defines a subliminal advertisement as having “deliberately constructed split-level meanings”, replete with metaphor, and which have the effect of actively altering modern consciousness with new meanings “created by juxtaposition and synthesis”. She draws the analogy of using the fresh air and healthy, outdoor imagery of cigarette advertisements of the time, as “akin to the military using camouflage” (1987, p. 360). Designer and art historian Frank M. Young says “Camouflage could be called the art of visual deception… The best way for animals to stay alive is to look like what they are not or to convince their enemies they are not there” (1985, p. 44).

In a paper titled “The Power of the Subliminal: On Subliminal Persuasion and other Potential Applications” (2005), Dijksterhuis, Aarts, and Smith define subliminal stimulation scientifically as referring to stimuli that are presented such “that they cannot reach conscious awareness, even if attention is directed to them” (p. 8). Our senses can handle about 11 million bits of information input per second, and roughly 10 million of those bits are taken in by our visual system. To provide some context, only about 45 bits per second can be processed consciously as we read silently, while the remaining 9,999,955 are processed unconsciously (2005).

Despite the launching of mental representations, or priming, as being crucial for activating corresponding affective responses, including arousing emotions, it does not matter whether this priming occurs consciously or unconsciously. However, when the priming can be perceived, control strategies to counter its effect can be elicited that cannot otherwise be employed when these perceptions are made unconsciously. Importantly, unconscious priming from subliminal perception “can influence both social judgments and overt behavior” (2005, p. 15).

In a paper titled “The Effect of Subliminal Incentives on Goal-Directed Eye Movements” (November 10, 2021), Hinze, Uslu, Antono, Wilke, and Pooresmaeili observe that rapid side-to-side saccadic eye movements made while looking at a screen can be induced by subliminal reward stimulation which motivates subjects “to exert more effort” (November 10, 2021, p. 2014). Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) “is a controversial form of psychotherapy in which the person being treated is asked to recall distressing images; the therapist then directs the patient in one type of bilateral stimulation, such as rapid side-to-side eye movement” (Wikipedia, retrieved December 2021). In a more recent paper titled “Inducing Amnesia for Unwanted Memories through Subliminal Reactivation” (November 28, 2021, preprint), Zhu, Anderson, and Wang propose that intentionally stopping memory retrieval through specific stimulation tasks that involve masking, suppresses hippocampal processing to induce an “amnesic shadow” within which traumatic events can be subliminally reactivated, then dissociated, and subsequently forgotten, without the subject having to be consciously re-exposed to them, as in EMDR. “Combining the amnesic shadow with subliminal reactivation may offer a new approach to forgetting trauma that bypasses the unpleasantness in conscious exposure to unwanted memories” (November 28, 2021, p. 8).

This research sounds promising. However, if such behaviour modification can be delivered or induced remotely where our screens and devices become modern tachistoscopes with dynamic subliminal capability, what are the implications of activating people in different ways, even en mass, without their informed consent? What other research is underway, perhaps involving subliminal auditory stimulation, or multi-modal stimulation, whose findings have not yet been published? How might the resulting affects be recognized and mitigated as subliminal stimulation occurs below the threshold of awareness? Are we not increasingly beholden to our mediated devices and virtual environments? What are we really giving permission for when we assent to the fine print while installing a new device, interface, or software application?

Are we headed towards techno-authoritarianism? Can technology become the leash and collar of societal control? Do we agree with Jane Caputi, in her referencing McLuhan’s more general notion of “technology made seductive” and the uses, virtuous and nefarious, to which it can be applied and unwittingly subscribed, “further signals the longed-for replacement of the elemental world by an indistinguishable, artificial substitute” (1987, p. 372) ?

A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions | Zoroastrianism:
“Him who is less than thee consider as an equal, and an equal as a superior, and a greater than him as a chieftain” (1946, p. 309).

Caputi, J. (1987), Seeing Elephants: The Myths of Phallotechnology, in Minton, A. J. & Shipka, T. A. (Eds.), Philosophy: Paradox and Discovery Third Edition (1990), (pp. 354 – 381). New York, United States: McGraw-Hill.

Dijksterhuis, A., Aarts, H., & Smith, P. K. (2005), The Power of the Subliminal: On Subliminal Persuasion and Other Potential Applications, in Hassin, R. Uleman, J. S., & Bargh, J. A. (Eds.), The New Unconscious, (preprint, pp. 1 – 51). New York, United States: Oxford University Press, [PDF document] retrieved December 2021 from

Hinze, V. K., Uslu, O., Antono, J. E., Wilke, M., & Pooresmaeili, A. (November 10, 2021), The Effects of Subliminal Incentives on Goal-directed Eye Movements, in Journal of Neurophysiology; 126 (pp. 2014 – 2026), doi: 10.1152/jn.00414.2021 [PDF document] retrieved December 2021 from

Hoople, R. E., Piper, R. F., & Tolley, W. P. (Eds.), (1946), A Sheaf of Golden Rules from Twelve Religions in Preface to Philosophy: Book of Readings (pp. 309 – 310). New York, United States: The Macmillan Company (1952 ed.)

Young, F. M. (1985) Visual Studies: A Foundation for Artists and Designers. Englewood Cliffs, United States: Prentice – Hall Inc.

Zhu, Z., Anderson, M. C., & Wang, Y. (November 28, 2021), Inducing Amnesia for Unwanted Memories through Subliminal Reactivation, (preprint v 1.1, pp. 1 – 14), [PDF document] retrieved December 2021 from


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