The Mystery Below The Surface

@midjourneybot: /imagine: the human subconscious

In this story, we isolate the features of our subliminal “System 1 neural network” using research on young children. We also learn just how little we should trust our own subconscious minds. 😬

TLDR—I’ll summarize this story for you.

We started the previous chapter on neuroscience discussing “The Virtual Reality of Reality” to demonstrate just how much influence our subconscious minds have on our lives. 99.7% of our vision is made up by our own generative-ai, so we don’t have direct access to reality. We see the world through “System 1 eyes”.

System 1, our generator neural network, is kinda like our body’s brain. Think of System 1 as “the person” who pulls your hand away from a hot stove before “you” have enough time to realize it.

System 1 is the animal you live inside.


Isolating System 1

No matter how early your first memories are, your System 1 was already here living life by the time your System 2 started remembering it. So early childhood gives us a good glimpse into the features of System 1 before the influence of System 2. The first thing we should recognize about the System 1 in all of us is that it is an absolute greed monster.

It has to be. If not, we wouldn’t survive our infant years because the scarcity of this world makes it that cold. Just watch any nature video of baby birds still in the nest. If you aren’t fighting to live in this world, your siblings will poke out your eyeballs and your mom will only feed you after all the other kids are stuffed. Lots of us know that first hand. The fundamental strategy of System 1 is “get all you can, can all you get, sit on the lid, and spoil all the rest”.

Some of us never outgrow that.


System 1 is greedy, but it’s also a little scientist. Babies will drop peas on the floor one-by-one just to see how their parents react. When babies become toddlers, they lie, steal, and cheat just to see what they can get away with. They constantly test the boundaries of where they are allowed to go and break things just to see how they work. One of our kids disassembled everything we owned that he could unscrew.

System 1 has almost no ability to manage emotions. When kids don’t get their way, they meltdown crying or slam their toys in frustration. Little kids don’t have a wallet, they don’t have a phone, and they don’t have bills—they have nothing to lose, so they negotiate like terrorists.

@bookpublishers: One of the chapters in my future parenting book is called, “Playing Chicken with Terrorists”. Whatever crazy science experiments you can imagine Captain Fantastic performing on his kids, I did that to mine, but with a lot more budget. I even taught our kids how to confront bullies by making them punch me in the face. The working title for this book is “Sticks and Stones: will break my bones, but words will irreparably damage me forever”.

Sounds like a comedy, right?

If you want to publish this book, email I’m also interested in a collector’s edition of “Uncertainty”, but only if you can print the emojis super glossy. 💅

@readers: If you want to buy either of those books one day, make sure we have your email.

Thankfully, babies are also the cutest things in the world. They are hilarious. When babies raise their little arms as high as they possibly can, they can barely reach the top of their own ginormous heads. Reach for the sky, baby. 🤣

Babies are little cuddle monsters. When babies hug, they lay into people like a bag of beans. I also love the tan lines in their little fat rolls.

@moms: How much do you want to bite the chunky thighs of a baby?  🥰

Toddlers are super cute too. When you ask a toddler to get the TV remote for you, they assume you meant to ask Usain Bolt. Their tiny little legs run full speed everywhere they go. Impulsiveness is definitely a System 1 trait. That’s why we see children rush through the house, rush in school, rush in sports, and rush when they eat.

The Mixing Board of Maturity

In fact, every character flaw that adults exhibit in life is actually a childish behavior that they failed to outgrow. For example, if you put the System 1 subconscious mind from a baby, into a big adult male body, he might tear your house apart looking for his “sippy cup”.

Or his beer. 🍺


That’s exactly how I imagine wifebeaters. When a 40-year-old man punches his wife in the face over a disagreement, he’s using the same conflict resolution strategy he used as a 4-year-old. His System 2 went on standby mode while his System 1 used the same method of getting his way that has worked for the last 36 years. 😡

Remember how we said that System 1 struggles to manage emotions? Take another look at the list of childish behaviors we highlighted earlier:

  • Lie

  • Steal

  • Cheat

  • Break things

  • Cry

  • Slam

  • Negotiate like a terrorist

Aren’t these the same problems we see in adults who won’t grow up?

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Our behaviors don’t automatically age with each new birthday. Every behavior that we exhibit in life has its own individual age.

I call this idea the Mixing Board of Maturity. You know those sound mixing boards they use in recording studios? Imagine you have a mixing board with sliders that indicate your age for every single activity you do in life. Those dials don’t all move together. For example, I’m 45-years-old, but I still eat like an 8-year-old when my wife is out of town.

So, let’s have a quick look at your Mixing Board of Maturity:

  • How old are you when you eat? Meaning the people who eat the same foods that I eat are typically X years old.

  • How old are you when you drive?

  • How old are you when you meet new people? Are you still as shy as a 4-year-old?

  • How old are you when you work? How many times per day do you need to be managed by an adult during work hours?

  • How old are you when you budget? If you don’t have one, neither does a 4-year-old.

  • How old are you when you pray?

  • How old are you when you work out?

  • How old are you when you talk to your parents? Do you still whine? Or worse, do you talk to them like they are children?

  • How old are you when you talk to your kids? Are you trying too hard to be their friend, or do you yell like kid who’s not getting their way?

  • How old are you when you talk to your neighbors?

  • How old are you when you watch TV (including porn)? Are you still a teenager?

  • How old are you when you get angry? Do you slam things? Do you break things? Do you roar?

  • How old are you when you are ignored? Do you pout like a 4-year-old?

  • How old are you when you daydream? Do you spend more time in a fantasy world than the real world?

Which areas of your life need to grow up the most?

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Your parents have probably been nagging you to grow up in those areas for years. Your girlfriend or spouse has definitely been nagging you to grow up in those areas for years—that’s actually part of their job. You have probably been nagging you to grow up in those areas for years:

  • To use the vocabulary of Behavioral Economics—your System 2 keeps getting challenged in life, but refuses to retrain your System 1.

  • To use the vocabulary of the ancient Greeks—your rider keeps getting challenged in life, but refuses to retrain your horse.

  • To use vocabulary from Computer Science—your discriminator network keeps getting challenged by “real world data”, but refuses to retrain your generator network.

  • To use vocabulary from the Bible—your soul keeps getting challenged in life, but refuses to retrain your flesh.

Humans are not more complicated than that. Killing parts of our inner child feels just like a small death inside. That’s exactly how I feel every time I choose a salad for lunch. 😩🥗

@christians: The story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac not only demonstrates Abraham’s belief that God could bring his son back to life, it reflexively highlights what God was willing to do for us—sacrifice his own son. That’s incredible. But Abraham sacrificing Isaac is also a metaphor. We all have an inner child inside us who needs to die in order for us to live. You have to kill them over and over and over again.

So get to murdering that big baby inside you.


The Why Machine

Our System 1 may be impulsive and fundamentally greedy, but that doesn’t mean that it’s dumb. System 1 is actually quite clever. Recall from the examples above that kids break things to see how they work and drop peas one-by-one just to test your reactions. That’s because System 1 is a “why machine”. Literally. Every parent will tell you, when little kids first learn to talk they will ask you, “Why?” a hundred times a day.

My favorite person to teach us why kids ask why so often is Alison Gopnik. Gopnik is a professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has researched and written extensively about learning in young children. I highly recommend her book, “The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind."

Here’s a quote from her Wiki,

Gopnik has done extensive work with applying Bayesian networks to human learning and has published and presented numerous papers on the topic. Gopnik says of this work, "The interesting thing about Bayes nets is that they search out causes rather than mere associations. They give you a single representational structure for dealing both with things that just happen and with interventions—things you observe others doing to the world or things you do to the world. This is important because there is something really special about the way we treat and understand human action. We give it a special status in terms of our causal inferences. We think of human actions as things that you do that are designed to change things in the world as opposed to other events that just take place.

Continuing from her Wiki,

Judea Pearl, developer of Bayesian networks, says Gopnik was one of the first psychologists to note that the [Bayesian] mathematical models also resemble how children learn. Gopnik's work at Berkeley's Child Study Center seeks to develop mathematical models of how children learn. These models could be used to develop better algorithms for artificial intelligence.

Of course Judea Pearl and Alison Gopnik are copying how children learn “to develop better algorithms for Bayesian neural networks”.

Copying children is copying Bayesian neural networks.


The difference between things that “just happen” and “human intervention” is the secret to understanding Causal Inference. Causal inference is just a fancy scientific name for “why”. Judea Pearl would know, he actually wrote the book on why. It’s called “The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect”.

This book is also fantastic. I had a formula from Pearl’s book written across the mirror by my front door for years:

P(Y | X=x)) != P(Y | do(X=x))


This formula means that the probability that Y will happen if X is true, is not equal to the probability that Y will happen if you do X intentionally. This formula helped me find even more ways I was lying to myself.

Both books are illuminating. From our birth, System 1 intervenes with the world just to learn what happens next. We apply chance to uncertainty even before we can remember, which means we are all scientists from the moment of our birth. We may be scientists even from inception. In the womb, geneticists can see our DNA “A/B testing” their environment with transposing “jumping genes” in embryos as young as 5 days old. We will explore this ability in detail in the story, “The BioLogical Robot”.

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Subliminal Computing

Our System 1 performs its Bayesian calculations and predictions within the subliminal part of our minds. Subliminal means “below the surface” or “below the limit”. So where exactly is this limit?

In the previous chapter, we listed the frequencies of our neural network layers that we can measure with EEG Neurofeedback. Most of our System 2 neural network (consciousness) operates in the range from 5 hertz (creativity) up to 30 hertz (panic). Anything faster than 100 hertz is too fast for “us” to notice. So the subliminal mind consists of all the neural network layers that operate faster than 100 times per second. If Orch OR Theory is materially correct then our subliminal minds have neural network layers that process a billion times per second, or gigahertz speed.

My favorite book to plumb the depths of our System 1 is called, “Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior” by Leonard Mlodinow. Yes, I trashed his Grand Design theory of the universe with Stephen Hawking, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy his research on the subconscious mind. “Subliminal” is insightful, fun to read, and absolutely terrifying.

Mlodinow provides all kinds of examples of how our beliefs and assumptions fill in the blanks of our experience. Remember how hard it is for two eyewitnesses to agree? Well, it’s also hard for two “earwitnesses” to agree. Mlodinow writes,

Our Hearing works in an analogous manner. For example, we unconsciously fill in gaps in auditory data. To demonstrate this, in one study experimenters recorded the sentence "The state governors met with their respective legislatures convening in the capital city," then erased the 120-millisecond portion of the sentence containing the first "s" sound in "legislatures" and replaced it with a cough. They told twenty experimental subjects that they would hear a recording containing a cough and would be given printed text so they could circle the exact position in the text at which the cough occurred. The subjects were also asked if the cough had masked any of the circled sounds. All of the volunteers reported hearing the cough, but nineteen of the twenty said that there was no missing text. The only subject who reported that the cough had obscured any phonemes named the wrong one.


Mlodinow continues,

Not only could they not pinpoint the exact location of the cough-they couldn't even come close. The cough didn't seem to occur at any clear point within the sentence; rather, it seemed to coexist with the speech sounds without affecting their intelligibility. Even when the entire syllable "gis" in "legislatures" was obliterated by the cough, subjects could not identify the missing sound. The effect is called Phonemic Restoration, and it's conceptually analogous to the filling in that your brain does when it papers over your retinal blind spot, and enhances the low resolution in your peripheral vision-or fills holes in your knowledge of someone's character by employing clues based on their appearance, their ethnic group, or the fact that they remind you of your uncle Jerry.

Our whole lives are made up. Even what we didn’t make up, was made up.


It gets worse,

Phonemic restoration has a striking property: because it is based on the context in which you hear words, what you think you heard at the beginning of a sentence can be affected by the words that come at the end. For example, letting an asterisk denote the cough, listeners in another famous study reported hearing the word "wheel" in the sentence "It was found that the *eel was on the axle." But they heard "heel" when they listened to the sentence "It was found that the *eel was on the shoe." Similarly, when the final word in the sentence was "orange" they heard "peel," and when it was "table," they heard "meal."

In each case the data provided to each subject's brain included the same sound, "eel." Each brain patiently held the information, awaiting more clues as to the context. Then, after hearing the word "axle," "shoe," "orange," or "table," the brain filled in the appropriate consonant. Only at that time did it pass to the subject's conscious mind, leaving the subject unaware of the alteration and quite confident of having accurately heard the word that the cough had partially obscured.

For some reason this is way scarier to me than aliens.


So two people hearing the exact same “objective sounds” from reality can actually hear two different things. They can both feel 100% certain that the other person is wrong, and both be right.

That’s crazy.

Physical touch can also influence our System 1 in ways that we don’t realize. Researchers had young men ask for women’s phone numbers on the street in France. In half of the interactions, the young men were instructed to make a very slight touch on the women’s forearm. The touch increased the “conversion rate” from 10% to 20%. When researchers had waiters lightly touch their patrons on the shoulder, tips went from 14.5% to 17%. Waiters sold the daily special 60% of the time with a touch and 40% without a touch.

Perhaps the most unnerving part of Mlodinow’s book is research on our memory. Our “remembering self” relies on the same generative-ai as our vision, so our memories are reconjured, not recalled. They are subject to the same “hallucinations” as Midjourney and DALL-E.

Mlodinow illustrates this point with the tragic story of a college student from Burlington, NC in 1984. Jennifer Thompson was asleep in her apartment when a burglar entered her apartment and raped her. She focused on his face, determined to identify him if she ever survived. She convinced the attacker to let her make him a drink and escaped naked out the window. The attacker chased but eventually gave up and entered another apartment and raped another person. At the hospital, police took hair and fluid samples and Jennifer immediately worked with a sketch artist to remember his face. Thompson identified a waiter named Ronald Cotton from a nearby restaurant that had plead guilty to sexual assault as a minor. The jury deliberated for 40 minutes before sentencing Ronald Cotton to “Life plus 50 years”. Once in jail, Cotton met the actual rapist named Bobby Poole. Based on Poole’s prison confession, Cotton got a new trial.

Mlodinow writes,

At the second trial Jennifer Thompson was asked again if she could identify her rapist. She stood fifteen feet from both Poole and Cotton and looked them over. Then she pointed at Cotton and reaffirmed that he was her rapist. Poole looked something like Cotton, but thanks to the experiences that she had had during the time after the rape—her identifying Cotton in a photo, then in a lineup, then in the courtroom—Cotton’s was the face forever burned into her memory of that night. Cotton emerged from his second trial with an even harsher punishment: he got two life sentences. Seven more years passed. What was left of the evidence from the ten-year-old crime, including a fragment of a single sperm from the perpetrator, languished on a shelf in the Burlington Police Department. Meanwhile, the new technology of DNA testing was making the news, thanks to the double-murder trial of O. J. Simpson. Cotton prodded his attorney to request that the sperm fragment be tested. Eventually, his attorney was able to get the test done. The result proved that Bobby Poole, not Ronald Cotton, had raped Jennifer Thompson.

Mlodinow sums up how System 1 generates memories like this,

the key concepts that many researchers now believe correspond to the way memory really does work: first, people have a good memory for the general gist of events but a bad one for the details; second, when pressed for the unremembered details, even well-intentioned people making a sincere effort to be accurate will inadvertently fill in the gaps by making things up; and third, people will believe the memories they make up.

Just think about how confident all of us are in our memories. It scares me every day. If you want to learn more about Mlodinow’s subliminal research, here’s a full presentation. (50 mins)

Mlodinow ends this presentation with a quote by psychologist Carl Jung,

The subliminal aspects of everything that happens to us may seem to play a very little part of our daily lives, but they are the almost invisible roots of our unconscious thoughts.

We close this essay with three book recommendations that demonstrate the very strong connection between the physical body and the subconscious mind.

The first is “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma” by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. This book is incredibly helpful for people who need stronger interventions to address their past traumas—which is all of us. Like the book jacket says, “One in five Americans has been molested; one in four grew up with alcoholics; one in three couples have engaged in physical violence”. Those are sobering statistics.

My second recommendation is Jordan Peterson’s book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”. His first chapter is called, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and it is one of the most important stories that young people need to hear. I had my kids listen to this book during one of our long road trips. I made them listen to his “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” essay twice. 🦞

The last recommendation is “What EveryBODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed Reading People” by Joe Navarro. My family also listened to this book on a road trip, mostly so I could listen to it again. For 25 years, Joe Navarro was the guy the FBI paid to train their agents in reading body language to uncover lies during interrogations. For $15, Navarro will tell you everything he knows about it—that’s a great deal.

Navarro has a whole chapter titled “Nonverbals of the Feet and Legs”. He also has chapters for the torso, hips, chest, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, and face. The most important takeaway from Navarro’s book is that we are all practiced liars and the further the body part is from the eyes, the more truthful its non-verbal communication will be. Our most trustworthy body parts are our feet. So make sure the tongue in your mouth and the tongue in your shoes are pointing in the same direction.

The reason body language is so important is because our System 1 reflexively broadcasts the internal state of our minds. We can’t not do it. Animals can read it. Fish can read it. People can read it. Once you learn body language from an expert, you will master it.

So, in short:

  • Don’t trust your feelings.

  • Don’t trust your thoughts.

  • Don’t trust your memories.

In general, other people are more right about you…than you.


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