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March 19, 2008 8:34 PM   Subscribe

Calling all neuroscientists! Is there a word for the times when you see something but don't know that you've seen it?

I was at Starbucks today and saw that there was a display of Buddy Holly CDs on the counter. I thought goddamn, that's why when I walked out of here yesterday I was singing "Peggy Sue" in my head. At the time I thought that I thought of the song randomly, but I know that I must have seen the CDs without knowing I saw them because this has happened to me before. I know the word "subconscious", but as far as I understand the term, it doesn't fit. (After all, I'm not driven by Buddy Holly drives, nor am I frightened of him such that I'd repress the the sight of him). Is there a term for this phenomenon, where you notice something enough to start a thought process, without actually noticing it?
posted by moxiedoll to Science & Nature (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by amyms at 8:36 PM on March 19, 2008

Subconscious is exactly the word you're looking for. It's something that you perceived, but wasn't raised to the level where you were conscious of seeing it.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:36 PM on March 19, 2008

Not sure about subliminal, as it implies deception, and Starbucks weren't really trying to decive you!

Maybe we need to string two word together for this one? How about

Subconscious Perception

where you saw it but didn't consciously recognise it?
posted by ranglin at 8:40 PM on March 19, 2008

>Not sure about subliminal, as it implies deception

I'd quite disagree. 'Subliminal' simply means "below the level of conscious perception". There's no value judgement involved.

Having said that, I think 'subconscious' is the correct word for this issue, just as chrisamiller said.
posted by pompomtom at 8:46 PM on March 19, 2008

Yes, subconscious is the right word for it. That something is below the level of consciousness, that is "subconscious" does not necessarily mean that you would be driven by it or be frightened of it -- just that it is below the level of conscious perception.
posted by peacheater at 9:07 PM on March 19, 2008

Maybe Jamais Vu?

posted by occidental at 10:29 PM on March 19, 2008

One (literal) answer to your first sentence (though not necessarily your record store experience) is, cortical blindness.
posted by availablelight at 1:06 AM on March 20, 2008

occidental: As I understand it, Jamais Vu would be if the OP saw a Buddy Holly CD and had an eerie sense of it being bizarre and unfamiliar, despite having the same album at home. Not quite the same thing.
posted by mmoncur at 1:55 AM on March 20, 2008

Best answer: Sounds like you were primed!

A not-so-excellent article on wikipedia:
Priming in psychology refers to activating parts of particular representations or associations in memory just before carrying out an action or task. [...] Conceptual priming is based on stimulus meaning and is enhanced by semantic tasks. For example, when primed with the word table, the subject will show priming effects on the word chair, because table and chair belong to the same category.
A much more detailed explanation:
If I say the word "Hawaii", what comes to mind? Beaches? Water? Sand? Sunshine? Most likely, all of these plus a few more are likely to enter your thoughts, but why? The short answer is that all of these words are commonly associated with one another. When you tell your friends about your trip to Hawaii, you mention the water you swam in, and the beaches you relaxed on. This association is more than skin deep, however. Your mental machinery is organized in a complicated network where related concepts are linked to one another. When one concept is activated, it is likely to activate other closely related concepts as well.
The thing to note about priming is that the prime does not need to be perceived on a conscious level -- in fact, priming is one of the most powerful techniques that can be used to examine implicit perception (a.k.a., subliminal perception, or subconscious perception -- they all mean the same thing in this particular context). In your case, it sounds like the Buddy Holly CDs at Starbucks acted as the prime that activated the Buddy Holly concept in your mind, which then activated the Peggy Sue concept in turn -- all without your conscious awareness.
posted by tickingclock at 2:01 AM on March 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

At the time I thought that I thought of the song randomly, but I know that I must have seen the CDs without knowing I saw them

Have you considered that your premise may be false? Perhaps it is a case of synchronicity.
posted by Neiltupper at 4:25 AM on March 20, 2008

This is priming.
posted by dmd at 5:34 AM on March 20, 2008

Jamais vu is different – it refers to a sudden spooky feeling that you've never seen a familiar setting before. Exactly the opposite of déjà vu.
posted by zadcat at 6:19 AM on March 20, 2008

3rding priming-- just had a class on this last month!
posted by BundleOfHers at 9:01 AM on March 20, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the responses. Priming it is! I'm so glad there's a word for it.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:20 PM on March 23, 2008

You might be interested in Derren Brown, a UK magician who does a lot of stuff with priming. He'll set up a whole situation to prime the person to pick the answer he wants.

(Or he just does it with normal magic / sleight-of-hand. He blurs a lot of lines for entertainment value.)
posted by smackfu at 4:56 PM on March 25, 2008

They probably play the CDs in the store too.
posted by Four Flavors at 5:35 PM on March 25, 2008

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