A Return to Instinct: The Power of the Unconscious Mind


Under the best of circumstances, I do not like needles.  Though I’m better at faking it these days, on the inside I’m still a terrified, screaming five-year-old.

In most situations, I understand that this fear is unhelpful.  But in some, I am learning, listening to your own misgivings can actually be the safest thing you can do.  In fact, Malcolm Gladwell contends in his book Blink that the human mind is extremely adept at assessing situations at a single glance. But I am getting ahead of myself. It all started when I found out I needed a yellow fever shot for my trip to Peru.

I did not love the idea, but when my husband found a suitable clinic, dragged me to the car and forced me into the sterile lobby of said clinic to fill out paperwork, I went quietly enough.

“So…you are Devin Moore?” a nurse asked me a half an hour later, as I sat shaking on the paper-covered examination bed.

“Ah, no,” my husband supplied.  “That’s me.”

The nurse nodded, then asked him if my birthday was his birthday.

“What? No,” he shook his head.  “That’s hers.”

The nurse nodded again, the way you might nod when an astrophysicist asks if you understand quantum field theory.  Then she stared vacantly at a wall for a bit, then turned back to us.  “I need to go get the rest of your paperwork,” she said.

Having only filled out one short form, I felt a little nervous about this.  I used the nurse’s absence to peek in our files, where I discovered that the nurse had crossed out my name and written in my husband’s, and vice versa.

“Does she think we got our own names mixed up?!” I whispered frantically.  “She’s the one who’s gonna stick me?  Are you kidding??”

My blood pressure skyrocketed. Devin made shushing noises as the nurse came tromping back up the hall.

“With all due respect, why are you here?” she asked abruptly.  She said it as though we, not her, had somehow confused the purpose of our visit.  As if we were wasting her time.

This is where Gladwell comes in.  The book’s subtitle – “The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” – gives some hint as to its content.  Within, he discusses a tennis expert who can tell when a serve will be out of bounds before the ball is hit; he presents doctors who assess patients less accurately the more information they receive; he challenges our ability to describe anything nearly as well as we automatically recognize it.

What do all of these examples have in common?

They are proof of the subconscious mind’s power to act on its own, to assess scenarios far more quickly and accurately than we ever could consciously.  The only drawback is a certain amount of frustration: the tennis expert still cannot figure out what tips him off; the doctors don’t know why they get worse at assessing situations given more information; it’s hard to say why we can recognize something in a snap but fail utterly to convey that same thing (say, a familiar face) in words.

The answer is that all of these things happen behind a “locked door,” Gladwell explains, a term invented to describe processes that occur in an unreachable mental recess.  But that doesn’t mean they aren’t incredibly accurate.

Something tipped off the tennis expert.  Doctor’s get worse with more information because their first impressions are already so finely tuned.  We can recognize Albert Einstein’s face but have a rough time describing it because we don’t need to describe faces in nature – we just need to know them.

This is known as thin-slicing: the ability to assess a very small snippet in time, often no more than a glance, and apply it in over-arching ways.

In my case, I could give myself countless reasons for the nurse’s error: she’d been told that my husband was going first and then found me on the table instead.  She was confused because Devin can sometimes be a girl’s name and though she was exceedingly proficient at English, it was clearly not her first language.  Paperwork isn’t her thing, but she’d given that shot a million times, so not to worry.  The receptionist hadn’t told her why we were there.  And so on, and so on.

But the fact of the matter was, it wasn’t any of these things specifically. It came down to the simple fact that I did not want her anywhere near me.  Period.

Society has taught us that these feelings aren’t rational, or polite.  In restaurants we pick at sketchy-looking food instead of sending it back.  We teach our children not to interrupt, even if it’s quite clearly “their turn.”  We don’t question doctors or nurses, because they know more than we do.

Gladwell thinks this is a crock. This is not to say that experts don’t know more than we do: they do. He merely means that our instincts are valid.

Some of his advice, for that matter, might have been directly aimed at me: “Next time you meet a doctor, and you sit down in his office and he starts to talk, if you have the sense that he isn’t listening to you, that he’s talking down to you, and that he isn’t treating you with respect, listen to that feeling.  You have thin-sliced him and found him wanting.”

As the nurse stood there, radiating a false and insulting patience, I could not help but think of these words.  When the doctor came in, I told him – not without some trepidation – that I wanted another nurse to administer the shot.

The first nurse reappeared moments later, ripped open our curtain, and told us, “I wasn't going to do your shot anyway.”  Then she stomped off.

Needless to say, I did not regret my decision.




"Thin-slicing", an interesting term for this process, yeah? I think I thin-sliced at the sentence --

Then she stomped off.

-- it fed directly into my subconscious mind power, and I caught a glimpse of the nurse storming off, the curtain fluttering. The intuitive senses are quite something, most true.

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