Take Two for May 29, 2013

What the Hitler teapot debacle says about the power of suggestion

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A Culver City billboard from J.C. Penney that some are saying resembles Hitler, especially when blurred as in the image on the right.

This week a billboard high above a Culver City intersection got a lot more attention than was intended.  

The seemingly innocent JC Penney billboard pictured a silver, whistling teapot that sort of looked like Adolf Hitler. It was one of those things that if you looked at it, maybe you'd only see a teapot. However, as soon as you mention that it looks like Hitler, that's all you can see. JC Penney has since taken down the ad and the teapot is sold out online. 

That got us thinking about what's actually going on in your brain when just a mere suggestion can influence the way you see an object? 

Leonard Mlodinow, author of "Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior," says it's about the push and pull of our unconscious and conscious vision. Much like we have unconscious minds that are beyond our control, we also have an unconscious level of vision that works the same way.  

"There are people who've had strokes that obliterate a certain part of the brain that's responsible for conscious vision...These people have something called blind sight: they can walk down a hallway and have no sensation of seeing anything, but still avoid obstacles instinctively as they walk because there unconscious mind is feeding them the information," said  Mlodinow. 

The human mind is built to find patterns. Our brains are constantly taking in information and employing context, prior knowledge and our experiences to make sense of the world around us. Mlodinow says that the addition of words, or someone suggesting a pattern, makes it even more difficult to erase from our unconscious minds. 

"If you saw the billboard and no one mentioned Hitler you probably wouldn't think it looked like Hitler," said Mlodinow. "Once you hear the suggestion of Hitler you can't avoid seeing it."


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