The word “message” is misleading when it comes to talking about subliminals. An otherwise simple message like, “Go to the store and buy a quart of milk” is much too complicated to be a subliminal message. More accurately, the “messages” in subliminals are actually signals. See the answers below for clarification and my book for even more information. But here’s the bottom line: subliminals cannot make you do anything and they are completely safe. Their sole purpose is to get the subconscious part of your mind to pay closer attention to the suggestions being made.
What do subliminals tell me to do?
Nothing, usually. At least not directly. The primary role of subliminals is to act as attention getters and emphasizers. They get the attention of the subconscious and give importance to conscious messages, such as those that compose the suggestions used in hypnosis.
Are suggestions more powerful when they are presented subliminally?
No. Actually, in most cases, they are not as effective as ordinary suggestions. Now, don’t let this confuse you. It’s just that the subconscious mind is not responsive to subliminal commands or complicated messages.
Only certain, very limited messages are effective, and they are effective ONLY in this way: They have the effect of saying to the subconscious, Listen up, what’s being said is important.
(Please note the distinction here between regular suggestions—that is, carefully crafted, complete statements or sentences—and subliminal imbeds, which are composed of a very narrow set of one- and two-word phrases.)
Think of subliminals used in this way as signals, rather than messages. Like the flashing lights at a railroad crossing. The alternately blinking lights signal the approach of a train. In the same way, certain subliminals signal to the subconscious mind that an important message is on the way. The subliminal signals don’t change the suggestion in any way, any more than the train signal changes the train.
Can subliminals make me lose weight (quit smoking/study better/etc.)?
This is actually the same question as the ones that precede it and the answer is the same. No. Not directly. A subliminally embedded suggestion like, “You will never again eat French fries” would not be nearly as effective as consciously presenting the same suggestion to the accompaniment of proper subliminals. These “proper” subliminals have been identified through years of painstaking laboratory and clinical research.
Are subliminals illegal?
No. A lot of people think they are, but they are legal in every state of the United States and, so far as I know, in every other country in the world.
Do magazines and other media use subliminals?
Some would say so, yes. They used to appear pretty obvious in places like full-page magazine advertising. However, I have not spotted any for several years. If they are still being used, they are quite subtle. If you’d like to know more about this, read Subliminal Seduction or The Clam-Plate Orgy by Wilson Bryan Key. (Note: Both of these books are currently out of print so you will have to find them in libraries or in used book stores.)
Can subliminals hurt me?
No, but they can be mildly upsetting to a very small fraction of the more sensitive among us. In my own research involving hundreds of subjects over the years, I found that roughly one in a hundred people would at first be mildly upset by some of the more powerful subliminals. But they usually quickly got over it. No one ever reported to me any serious disturbance, nor am I aware of that happening in other research.