John Carpenter got something right when he conceived of They Live (1988), and the formula was simple: start with snarky, dark, commentary about class structure in American society, add some criticism of authority, and top it off with the on-screen antics of—who else?—Rowdy Roddy Piper, and you have a tantalizing foray into the public’s conscious—or should we say unconscious? After donning specialty sunglasses that only the outrageously stylish 80’s could have produced, our main character finds himself staring his oppressive adversaries in the face—and discovers that they are controlling the population with subliminal instructions to ‘obey’ and ‘consume’! A startling idea, to be sure.
Though the central idea of subliminal mind control is not original, it does allow us to address the very important question of subliminal perception, and to ask the question ‘Just how much can the brain process outside of our awareness?’ Well, it’s clear that the brain can and does process a lot of information that we can’t necessarily consciously report (e.g. words and pictures). For instance, researchers will often present pictures or words for very short durations on a computer screen and measure whether people report seeing them. Interestingly, researchers can predict whether a person is likely to report seeing an image by examining what parts of the brain are active and to what extent (e.g., areas involved in sensory processing, as well as ‘higher-association’ areas that allow us to recognize complex shapes and word meanings are more active during conscious perception; see Dehaene et al, 2006).
However, it is unclear just how effective instructions like ‘obey’ would be at initiating obedience in people. After all, if people are unlikely to obey when told explicitly, why would they be any more likely to do so aren’t consciously aware of the instruction? Though our brain is capable of processing many things in the environment without our direct awareness, we are confident that we need not fear hostile takeover by an alien race that happens to like our brand of Western wealth and elitism. Just be careful about your choice of sunglasses.
Check out They Live here:
Dehaene, S., et al (2006). Conscious, preconscious, and subliminal processing: A testable taxonomy. Trends in Cognitive Science, 10, 5, 204-211.
Franco, LJ (Producer), Carpenter, J. (Director). (1988). They Live [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Studios.