The Power of the Unconscious

by Jo Anne Nelson on April 17, 2011

David Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal, explores new research about the inner workings of our minds—particularly the dominance of the unconscious mind in our lives. Not surprisingly, research confirms that rather than being governed by reason, we humans are driven by emotion.

I am particularly struck by how humans appear to be likely capable of reading each other through our sense of smell. According to a study at the Monell Center, we can smell the difference between fear and laughter.

Researchers in a study had participants wear a gauze patch and then watch movies, either comedies or horror films. Each participant was later asked to smell the gauze patches and choose which ones were worn during horror films and which during comedies. They were very successful in choosing the right ones, and women were apparently better at it than men.

What might this mean in our day-to-day relationships? If we can smell fear and laughter, does this mean that we can detect at an unconscious level when someone is afraid? And if they are acting as if they are not, do we then unconsciously think they are insincere?

What might it mean for entrepreneurs? Can we develop perfumes or deodorants that would influence others by smelling of laughter or other ‘positive’ emotions? Would it register with their unconscious mind as positive, or would the person’s actual emotions override it?

We like to think that we are superior to our animal brethren, but it seems that we continue to learn the many ways in which we are closer to them than we might imagine or like.


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