Subconscious Smack-Down: Pay Attention, Dummy

by Claudius J West

An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation featured a young actor playing an alien shapeshifter named Salia who became the love-interest of teen-genius Wesley Crusher (Will Wheaton). During their time together, the shapeshifter frequently quoted from a list of personal rules, by number, such as: “Rule Seventy-Four: Always spread the peanut butter on before the jelly.”

Except, her rules were along the lines of Significant Life Lessons.

Star Trek Salia shapeshifter girl 01

Salia having one of those days.

What a wonderful idea (aside from the tiresome habit of quoting from the list every two minutes). How much more focused and effective people could be if only they remembered their useful experiences and applied those memories as they lived their day to day lives. Think of all of the wise insights you’ve had throughout your many years but have forgotten about—except you can’t think about them because, by definition, you’ve forgotten them. If you could have them all back in your mind, right now, wouldn’t you want to write them down so you’d wouldn’t forget them, again? Making a list and reminding yourself of what was on the list, it sounds like such a must-do idea.

It’s been a lot of years since I first saw that Star Trek episode. I always meant to get a list going, but never did. And then, I realized I did have a list: it was my daily affirmations, and I’ve had them for the past eight years.

I say “daily,” but that hasn’t been strictly true for the entire eight year period. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve stuck to a daily recitation. It takes me about half an hour to get through them all.

Why daily? At half an hour each go-through, that’s a significant weekly-monthly-yearly commitment of time. Wouldn’t I be better served by using that time to learn a foreign language, or by practicing a musical instrument?
I can’t precisely determine  how much my affirmations have actually changed my life, but I am certain they have been significant contributors. Even if it amounts to a mere nudge in the right direction, over the course of years and, eventually, decades, that nudge has got to add up to a large overall change in direction.

I was reading a book by a neurologist who was talking about research he did involving the plasticity of our brains. He was teaching non-blind people Braille, and measuring the length of their neurons and the increased interconnectedness of the neurons associated with the language center of the brain. My big take-away lesson from his story was that it needed about six months of sustained, daily practice before big changes in the brains of the Braille-learners were noticed.

It’s useful to have a realistic expectation of when to expect changes to start making a difference—otherwise, we might give up on our efforts to change too soon.


I’ll buy that.

Self-help author, peak performance coach and master facilitator of personal change Anthony Robbins says that affirmations as they are typically practiced are ineffective. In place of affirmations, he prefers what he calls “incantations” (a peculiar word-ch0ice coming from a guy in a longterm campaign to fend off any shading of his seminar business with cultish associations). Tony’s main point is that for affirmations/incantations to work, one has to really feel powerful and positive emotions while speaking those affirmations. It’s emotions more than thoughts that actually drive us, so the more we can link strong emotion to the words we tell ourselves, the more we are likely to drive ourselves in the direction we want to go.

Tony tells the story of doing his affs/incantations while out running for exercise, shouting his incantations to the sky and into the public ear with no regard for who might overhear, be unsettled by it, or disapprove. I haven’t done this myself, and not only because I don’t run for exercise. I might have tried it while walking, which I do do a lot of, but I guess I’m too shy for that sort of thing.

If my commitment to my affs was stronger, strong enough to lead me to shout them in public, no doubt they would have greater effect. But, I don’t do that.

So, how to make my affs more effective? Since I’m spending all of this time reciting them, what can I do, short of a public display, to make them more irresistible to my subconscious mind?

Visualization. Our subconscious minds, I’ve been led to believe, don’t speak English. What our minds do understand is the language of emotions and images. The more emotion connected to an image, the better.

My goal is to add images alongside my affirmations so that they, my affirmations, will have more impact.

I began with this affirmation:

“Sugar is poison. Sugar is decrepitude. Sugar is disease and self-destruction. I must avoid sugar at all costs.”

Although I know and believe all of that to be true, it doesn’t stop me wanting to eat my favorite treats. In this regard, knowing is nowhere near as effective as feeling. How to bring in some feeling to support the badness of sugar?

Representing what I liked was easy. Here’s what it looked like:

Screen shot 2013-02-09 at 2.07.28 PM


Those aren’t random images; they’re want I really like to eat. The only favorite treats not showing are Pim’s Raspberry Soft Biscuits, and a whole lot of Rocky Road ice-cream.

box of pim's raspberry cookies


Honestly, it all still looks pretty good to me, despite what came next.

What came next were the images that would so thoroughly pollute and foul these favorites so that my avowal that I must avoid sugar at all costs would become a psychological reality.

Where to start? Easy. Dog shit, where else? Google Images has a lot of everything, even that. But I wasn’t looking for the cutesy dog turd, wound in a perfect circle and closed up like the tip of an ice-cream cone. Too, almost, adorable, as if a cake-decorator squeezed it out of a Chihuahua . Too fake.

Bandages. And then there was the search for bloody bandages. It is easy to tell fake blood from real blood. The image I chose had the blood on gauze bandages dried to a convincing brownish color.

Wounds. Odd how some people wish to recreate the most horrible wounds on their bodies, for shock value, I suppose. The fakes are nearly indistinguishable from the real ones, but somehow they don’t inspire that sense of horror or pity. The fakes are there because someone wanted them to be like that. Meh.

Instead, I chose something really real, a foot with three toes amputated and the wound still open, which is appropriate seeing how that is the type of amputation all too common to diabetics.

Vomit. My search for offensive vomit did not fare so well, except with the lucky catch of the retching rabbit. I turned him red to imply that he is spewing blood.

Tumors. The bloody handprint and skull and crossbones were obvious choices that helped convey the idea of the undesirable. In the background is a massive tumor and, less pronounced, the head of a man with a terrible tumor erupting from it. Only the tumor is visible, and has little gross-out effect on viewers until I move the image into full sight (ala Photoshop). But I always tuck him back out of sight, except for his tumor, because that’s what my sense of esthetics requires.

Although I had to remind myself that this was not meant to be an pleasing picture, there were certain promptings of compositional esthetics I was powerless to resist. I fiddled around for quite a while before everything got put in its proper place.

Affs Sugar Is PoisonUntitled-1

Funny how when I showed this image to my home audience, no one noticed the doggie do-do until I pointed to it. They noticed the puking rabbit, but other than that, the negative images took a backseat to the yummy bits. I don’t know what that should be, except that those images are so familiar to us and easy to identify, and they carry such strong impressions of desirability.

The other day, as Ms. Immortal and I strolled through a CVS, we passed within reaching-distance of a truly gorgeous display of Ferrero Rocher chocolates.

“Look at that,” I said, pointing.

“Oh, no, that’s not for you.”

“Yes, I know. I’m not saying that I want them. I mean, I still think they’re delicious, but I don’t want them. But there they are, just like in my aff-composite. I was just thinking of all of the bad stuff that goes along with them.”

So far, this visualization thing seems to work.



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