The Human Subconscious as a Superpower


What you see isn’t always what you get

If you would be so kind, please indulge me for a moment with a series of hypotheticals. Just play along, it’ll be fun. Alright now, let’s say you’re hungry. The last thing you ate was a bowl of cereal that tasted more like you ingested a sheet of construction paper than anything the cereal box claims it tastes like. That was hours ago, and your stomach is starting to growl louder than the whirring of your computer fan. You imagine what you want to eat: maybe a bowl of ramen, a juicy steak, or the most amazing sandwich. As that thought forms, the dish appears beside you. Poof. While you’re at it, you mentally will your homework to be done and for that annoying itch under your chin to vanish. Poof and poof. Done. Imagine the ability for all your desires to come true with just a thought. Then imagine you secretly want your cute classmate to appear naked in your room and that happens too. It’s what you wanted but…yikes, not really. Not now! Having your mind shape the world around you has its fair share of positives, negatives, and generally interesting facets to think about.

I’ve seen quite a few anime lately that take the idea of subconscious desires or how our perception of the world can be altered by own thoughts and twists it into a cool superpower. If you haven’t watched [email protected] yet, it is about a girl who has the ability to change the world around her. Whenever she wants something to happen, the world will quite literally bend to her will to appease her. In episode one, this manifests in the whole world turning into chocolate on Valentine’s Day. It’s very different from having her wishes granted, because it goes straight to her rawest desires and shapes the entire environment around that. It’s like a more extreme version of Haruhi’s godliness from The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi, except Haruhi was unaware of her powers.

Suzumiya Haruhi

While our own secret or not-so-secret wishes don’t usually result in actual physical changes to the world around us, it does affect our perception of it. In that sense, we all technically have an ability like Sasami does. Sasami-san and Haruhi hint that what we want to see is often what we do see. Humans are not aware of all of their desires. Everyone has hidden biases and things that they want that they themselves are not fully aware of. Without realizing it, these things shape how we see the world as much as our conscious train of thought does.

We use our memories, current emotions and past knowledge to interpret the world around us in something called top-down processing. So if we’re really hungry, we may not be able to make a meal spontaneously appear on our desk, but how we interpret the environment does change. We will be more aware of food ads, smells of food, and it will seem like anyone eating in the general vicinity is eating the most delicious and tempting meal because the concept of food is now highly salient in your mind. Likewise, being sad makes everything depressing in the world stand out more. These aren’t just things people noticed, but there have been multiple experiments showing that people who are depressed will actually react faster to negative words than neutral or positive ones.

Basically, our perception of our surroundings can change at any time with our mood, physiological state (drunk or sober), or what we’re focusing on. Anime like Sasami-san and Haruhi take that and turn it into a fullblown power, which is a really cool way to look at just how much sway the brain has over the world. Instead of just changing their viewpoints of the world, it makes absolute changes in reality.

All in all, the world is very subjective. All of our 5 senses might not be an exact replica of the world, so our reality can vary from person to person. Do you ever wonder if other people perceive the colour red the way you do? Or the smell of mint tea? Or the feeling of a cat rubbing affectionately against your legs? How do you even describe what those things mean to you? So much of our world is decided by just a wrinkly lump of brain matter.
Shinsekai Yori

The following in spoiler tags are spoilers for episode 10 of Shinsekai Yori. Show ▼

To finish with one more, slightly less superpowered example, I wish to bring up Gankutsuou. Admittedly, I doubt anyone needs any more examples, but I just  recently finished this highly charming anime and wanted to find any excuse to talk about it. This was as good of a chance as any, even if it doesn’t quite follow the supernatural/supernatural trend I’m going for. Think of it as a bonus? *sigh* I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to indulge me again…


Would you trust a man like this?

Gankutsuou stars a mysterious Count who is either regarded as being a wonderful gentlemen or a dirty trickster. He presents himself in largely the same manner to everyone, so what the characters make of him is usually a result of what they want to see instead of what is actually there. Albert is a naive character who is bored with his life, so he sees the Count as a wonderful change of pace and assumes he can do absolutely no harm. Throughout the show he’s provided endless strings of evidence that prove the Count’s wickedness – yet he refuses to believe any of it. He wanted a new friend to show him grand, exciting things so that’s what he saw in this mysterious man. His world was one where the Count was his best friend and everyone else was being paranoid.

Albert’s best friend, Franz, is a lot more interested in finding the truth. Right from the beginning, he hates the Count and how he easily enters Albert’s life and takes it over. He sees reality as close as possible to how it actually is, and not through rose-coloured glasses. Normally, you’d be suspicious of a man with blue skin, fangs, and strange eyes. I originally thought his appearance was a stylistic choice given the bold animation style However, at one point a kid points to him and blurts out “Vampire!” when he sees the fangs. Everyone can see these unsettling features, yet no one says anything about them except an innocent child who is totally open with the world.

The brain is such an endlessly interesting thing. It is as I say it is – a thing – but it controls almost every aspect of our life. I like when anime take these kinds of concepts and just run with them to make the brain a possible source for all kinds of superpowers. Even Phi Brain turns the brain into a weapon capable of solving deadly puzzles and unlocking God Scrolls to destroy the planet with knowledge. Psycho-Pass is also all about psychological states and how they are now regulated by the law. Everyone likes to imagine that their thoughts and imagination could come to life. In a way, it does…It just won’t make the world turn into chocolate any time soon.


Fanservice is the best way to sign off from a post. Don’t try and tell me otherwise.


A neuroscience graduate, black belt, and all-around nerd. You'll either find me in my lab or curled up in my rilakkuma kigurumi watching anime.
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28 Responses to “The Human Subconscious as a Superpower”

  1. BlackBriar says:

    Yes! Another editorial from OC. I enjoy it whenever you bring up these topics. That introduction is potent enough to trigger serious hunger. People should proceed with caution while reading that. 

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention Index or Railgun (or Zettai Karen Children) in your examples. Their way of life in Academy City is completely based on powers created from the human subconscious. Very few power users are born with supernatural powers while most are ordinary people who have the potential to develop them. Academy City’s Power Curriculum Program, which utilizes tests, studies, lectures, medicines, body simulations and hypnosis used to unlock a person’s powers, is one means of developing psychic powers for ordinary people with potential. Each power is determined by the user’s “personal reality” by adding values from perception of their surroundings. An ideal example of this is Accelerator who uses vector equations in his brain to control his powers which lets him control any vector he touches including motion, heat, electricity and wind. This allows him to perform various feats such as reflecting bullets, launching heavy objects and even reversing the flow of blood in people’s bodies. When he got shot in the head, he had to do the processing externally with the help of a device around his neck which is connected to his brain.

    People are born with different characteristics so I assume they all perceive things in various ways like one individual enjoying the taste of food such as fish while another is adverse to it. Psycho-Pass does a good job at proving and exploiting this difference between individuals, some who are vulnerable to Hue checks while others are criminally asymptomatic because their emotions are dulled and they lack empathy.

    As for the “Would you trust a man like this?” question. I’d say “no way” because he’s too obvious. I’d buy it if it was someone less conspicuous.

    • Overcooled says:

      It’s been a while! Maybe I can get back to the once-per-month pattern….

      I never liked the Index or Railgun series and the esper abilities in ZKC are a littttle bit different from what I want to talk about. I dropped the Index/Railgun shows after 2 episodes, but that’s pretty cool that their powers are based on their own personal reality. Using your own unique viewpoint to find a special power for you is neat. Although for the most part people have very similar ways of interpreting the world.

  2. joojoobees says:

    OC, I really like this approach to the subject!

    There is a relevant school of thought loosely associate with Hamburg, Germany between WWI and WWII. One of the more famous articulators of this way of thinking was Ernst Cassirer. The general idea was that humans do not perceive the world, but rather their own symbolic creation. The world as it presents itself to human experience is too chaotic to be navigated, so humans create symbolic affordances which they then confuse for Reality.

    At first humans created distinctions between things, and grouped others together, as a sort of tool-making activity. We gave order to the chaos, for example identifying the constellations so that we could find our way around, but ended up believing ourselves to be ruled by these astrological beings. The human mind creates symbols, then ends up trapped in a symbolic net of its own creation.

    These “symbolic forms”, including Race, Gender, Class, etc. which once were produced by the human mind, gain an independent existence, with the power to affect our life experiences and our behavior. In essence we are all Shun.

    • Overcooled says:

      Yes, I’ve heard of this! In a way, humans can never directly sense the world. All of our senses can be boiled down to axons sending electrical signals. It’s those electric signals that tell us about the world – not direct input from reality. When you think of things like optical illusions, you start to wonder just how much of this your body is making up for you or plain guessing. It’s really interesting to think that we aren’t actually interacting with reality…but our own symbolic version of it. I remember talking about this in class, and it was part of my basis for making the post.

      It’s funny how when you think about it, all our categorization is kinda meaningless. It’s highly useful, but we could have grouped together the stars in any way really to make a whole different set of constellations. Unfortunately, it does have it’s downsides (racism,sexism etc.). In the end we really are a lot like Shun…which makes me glad our society isn’t like the one in Shinsekai Yori.

  3. Tofu says:

    Well played OC… well played… ;D

    What you’ve just touched on is only a small part to what makes anime so awesome. It can become a very philosophical journey in one series, and a very psychological journey in another. The things we’re made to question or triggers such open discussions is what makes anime so enjoyable ^^

    But onto the actual topic, I have to agree with you. I mean, who wouldn’t? We’ve all experienced this in everyday life with the whole attention shift due to mood and OMG I had weird questions like “am I seeing what others are seeing?” and all the others too! You can’t ever be sure unless you literally swap ‘souls’ and live their lifestyle within their bodies. To me it’s really intriguing but I never question these stuff in public or else I’ll get thrown into a mental institute.

    I also have to give praise to joojoobees for sharing Ernst Cassirer’s words. I couldn’t have put it better myself! Just what IS reality? Reality is what WE as individuals perceive it to be. Each of our ‘reality’ are different to each others in some sense but we might share similar ‘truths’ like with religion and etc. As humans, we wish to feel safe and belong in society and would go to extreme lengths as to doing other stuff in order to fit in. You’re always influenced by your environment no matter how small it is. Once that happens, your reality changes. Your everyday life changes. Religion is a very delicate and sensitive topic but can also be applied to what I’m saying. Is religion real or fake? We don’t know either way but it CAN serve as an ‘escape’ from our insecure lives. We might pray to god because THEN we would have SOME hope in a positive outcome. But like I said this is a very sensitive topic so I’ll stop there.

    Awesome post OC! Always look forward to these ^^

    • Overcooled says:

      It’s really nice that different people find wildly different things to talk about, even for the same series. Part of why I love blogging is trying to find that one angle I can contribute to and seeing what way other people see the same things. Because this is my specialty subject, I tend to take a psychological view for most things.

      I was hoping to at least get people to stop and be creeped out by the thought that other people aren’t experiencing what they are. Because it’s creepy! Then it makes you wonder “Well…if I see red like THIS and you see it like *this*…then who is right?” It makes the world you see seem less real and concrete. You can even go far enough to ask if life is all a lie, but yes…then you’d be sent to a mental institute lol

      I’m really glad Joojoobees brought it up, because it’s yet another really poignant question to ask yourself. You summed it up perfectly too! We just have to believe in the world we live in because what else can we do? This viewpoint is the only one we have. We just have to try and see reality as close as possible to how it really is.

  4. Highway says:

    I actually have wondered about what you say about colors. I’ve wondered if the way I perceive my favorite color (in the very saturated blue range) is the same way someone else would perceive *their* favorite color, even if it’s a different color (and of course, people would still think they’re different colors, because how do you know what red and blue are? Because someone told you what they are).

    One way I’ve somewhat recently learned that my brain is different from most is that I am number form synesthetic. I didn’t realize that everyone else was not like this until just a few years ago, when I learned about synesthesia, because they always teach kids about number lines. Well, I’ve just got a really long and convoluted number line that exists in a 3D space and has regions of light and dark. As far as I know, I’ve always had the same form, too.

    I don’t know if I’m quite as solipsistic as to believe that my mentality is fabricating things. Something like Heinlein’s Pan-theistic Multiple-Ego Solipsism (a.k.a. World as Myth) is a cool idea, and who knows, maybe there are those fabulists who do have the ability to create alternate realities.

    • Tofu says:

      I have a friend who actually can’t see the colour red. He see’s red as orange and I find that really amusing. He will never know what the colour ‘red’ will ever look like in his entire life. Although he’s learnt how to distinguish when something that looks orange might actually be red through educational guesses, it’s fascinating and sad at the same time to know that he will forever be curious as to what the colour red looks like. Who knows what else might be lurking in the unknown where we cannot perceive. ;D

      • Restia says:

        I guess then people that turn blind or turn deaf, although their conditions might be the saddest since they can no longer experience what blessings they had, have the most wisdom?

        I also have a friend who is color blind, I don’t know if your friend is colorblind or has some other condition, but he’ll look at a box of color pencils and be like “It has duplicates of the same colors” although he’s aware that he’s colorblind and does it as a joke. But it is quite sad, they will forever ponder what the colors they can’t see look like. Perhaps in the near future, there will be some kind of lenses for colorblind people so they can see colors (kind of like Anna’s marble in [K]~)

      • Highway says:

        Maybe my office is full of defectives. 😉 We actually have three people who are significantly color blind. It’s a source of some level of derision, to be sure. When a guy comes up with a shaded spreadsheet that looks like the 70’s exploded all over it with highly contrasting colors, in purples and greens and oranges, you can’t help but be amused.

        • Overcooled says:

          My instructor for an MCAT-prep course was red-green colourblind. He could tell the difference between them when apart, but if you put red and green objects next to each other then he couldn’t tell which was which. It’s so weird to imagine just NOT KNOWING what a colour looks like and missing out. I…can’t even imagine it.

          Unfortunately, I doubt lenses could fix colourblindness. I think it’s either an issue with the population of rods and cones themselves or an issue the vision centre’s ability to process those colours. Ahh, if only there was an easy solution.

          • Highway says:

            To mix in another anime, with something like Iru-O, however, it would be possible to program it to recognize different colors that the user has predetermined are indistinguishable, and add something to them. Perhaps a pattern, perhaps even a label, whatever the user would like to use. Or maybe not even do it all the time, but when the user asks. Have you seen the demo video for Google Glass? Maybe something like that: “Ok, Glass, what’s that color?” So it wouldn’t fix the color blindness, but it would add the ability to distinguish back into people’s lives.

    • Overcooled says:

      I’ve read that while most people generally agree on colour names, there are some individual differences. Not to the point where someone will call something that’s green “purple” (unless they’re colourblind) but if you show someone a bluish-purple some are more likely to say purple than blue. There’s actually some notable differences between cultures too in defining colours.

      That is actually really interesting that you have synesthesia. It’s really rare from what I understand. Did this actually help you do better in math?

      Anyways, synesthesia is a perfect example of people having totally different perceptions of the world. And you never know until someone tells you how they see the world. For you, that’s just normal.

      • Highway says:

        Talking about differences in colors is actually something that I find very difficult as a concept to get across to other people, because they’re something that we’re all associated to from our early beginnings. The idea that the actual experience I have in my brain when I see, say, Forest Green could be the same experience that you have in your brain when you see floral pink is something that people just can’t wrap their heads around. The idea that we all call most colors the same thing (although the cultural differences is an interesting phenomenon) and thus see them the same way is so pervasive, but it’s an entirely taught mechanism.

        As for the numbers, I don’t know if it helps me do better in math (I am an engineer, but I don’t know how much it contributes), but one thing it does is help me judge relative values much better, because to me 70 is ‘here’ and 92 is ‘there’ (up the ‘ladder’, as it were). And they’re *always* that far apart. Like I mentioned, it’s something that I didn’t realize that was so rare. Something I’ve wanted to do, even before realizing that it was an oddity, is actually map out the form that I have. It’s just something that I’ve always had as long as I can remember, so to me at first blush it doesn’t seem that interesting, until I learned that not everyone was the same way.

  5. Restia says:

    OverCooled you are a Philosopher!!

    Hm, this brings up something me and Highway were talking about somewhere because I side-tracked to Touhou. XD Most Touhou arrangers vary in the Electro/Techno genre, though there are very popular Rock/Metal arrangers (eg. DEMETORI, Foreground Eclipse, UNDEAD CORPORATION, Crow’s Claw) and other genres (Diverse System is known for covering pretty much every genre, heck it says Diverse in their name, I have two physical copies of their albums actually~)

    Anywho, I shared some of the songs I thought were catching my interest lately (except for Myonx5 which was old) but Highway wasn’t interested because Electro/House didn’t necessarily match his music scope. He continued to explain that he grew up listening to Rock therefore he generally listened to that. So, our preferences are also altered by our surroundings?

    But then there are things that are just based on the person. My sister and are generally interested in the same stuff, we grew up together so that should be expected. I’m full Korean, moved to California when I was like 3. Kimchi is pretty much Korea’s representative dish, my father, mother, and sister love it. I HATE IT ಠ_ಠ I hate the taste. I hate the smell. I hate the look. I WILL CONTINUE TO HATE IT FOREVER. I hated it since I was little. Of the few memories of preschool I had in Korea, I remember the teacher making me sit at my table until I ate the kimchi on my plate. I didn’t. I just sat there until the teacher gave up ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) hue hue hue.

    Um. I think I’m straying from the original point. The human subconcious affects our perception of the world was it? This type of thing would be stronger when you are a child, *coughCHU2BYOUcough*. and when you think about children, you think about imaginary friends and playing with socks or something. Like how the heck is playing with a sock that interesting? Babies will pick that shit up and act like its a fricken space ship fighting the demon lord. That reminds me of a SpongeBob episode. That one episode where they had a box and “IMAGINATION~”

    • Gecko says:

      As a little kid, I was once given a piece of gray string. I proceeding to think that I had a pet worm. I kept in a box, stared at it, ect. And like 50 million imaginary friends, too.
      I have no idea how I did that. No clue whatsoever.

      • Overcooled says:

        One imaginary friend wasn’t enough? Did you have to catch them all like Pokemon or something?

        • Gecko says:

          I don’t really know… I just had to have a lot around for some reason. Some were definitely like Pokemon, though.
          Probably because I had few human friends, so I made up for it with imaginary friends.

      • BlackBriar says:

        Ah, the ignorance and bliss of a childhood mind. Because the mind isn’t developed at that time, it’s easy to loose sight of reality. One time I thought I was living in a world where you’d be exposed to fantasy stuff like what would be found in an anime, as in a gate to another world. You got to laugh at yourself when you think back.

    • Overcooled says:

      Haha, I’m not the best philosopher, but thank you!

      Well, a lot of things affect your overall preferences. For example, Highway says he likes rock because he grew up listening to it…but someone else could grow up listening to rock and get so sick of it that it gives them a headache. It’s really just a mix of genetics and your environment. Some things are based more on genes, some more on the environment, and some because of a mix of things. Different people react to different things differently! Disliking kimchi is probably more of a personal thing than genetic, haha. That must have been annoying having kimchi forced down your throat when you hated it so much. :/

      Kids perceive the world wayyy differently from adults because they don’t know what a lot of things mean (and their brains aren’t fully developed so who knows what the hell is going on in there). So a kid could easily see a sock as a playtoy but adults are more fixed in how they view things.

      • Highway says:

        Hmm, I don’t know if it was as much listening to it that made me more favorable to rock music, because my parents actually have pretty eclectic tastes in music, so I grew up listening to a lot of classical (mostly what was in the car), and also 50’s and 60’s folk music. And I still like a lot of that. I also grew up playing clarinet and piano, classical music and concert band stuff, so there was a lot of other exposure.

        But as I’ve mentioned before, for me to get interested in a song, it needs to have something that hooks me. And that can be anything from the music, to the lyrics, to the fact that it was in an anime I like, to the things I was doing when I heard it (One of the more lasting associations I have is that I was listening to The Art of Noise – Beat Box while reading the novelization of Aliens so now every time I hear that song, I think of the movie, not the book). And generally, guitars and drums are an easier hook for me than most other instruments. To tie it back into perception, those sounds just are things that call to me. 🙂

        • Restia says:

          Hoho, but that’s also a preference. Something that might hook you might not hook someone else in a song. I usually don’t like songs that have too much of a build up either, but one of my favorite songs Lunar Dial arranged by estha, has this insanely long build >_> (an entire minute) but its well worth the wait imo, it’s 7 minutes long anyways

  6. Gecko says:

    I have to say that this was a really interesting read. 🙂 But of course, I really don’t know anything about the subject.
    I will say that I do wish my imaginations could come true sometimes. But the reality is, we all need to work to get what we want out of life. We can’t just think of it and hope that it will show up. That’s being lazy. It can make a good show if the character doesn’t know they have that kind of power (like Haruhi) but once they realize they could use it for anything, there’s a serious risk of laziness.

    • Restia says:

      Wonderful read :> Overcooled did a great job~ I felt like I was reading one of Omo’s (Omonomono) posts, Omo does alot of editorial-esque stuff~ super interesting enlightenment haha

      I think this would be considered Psychology?

      • Gecko says:

        Yeah, I think this is psychology. Which I know pretty much nothing about. Unlikely I will have time to study it anytime soon either.

      • BlackBriar says:

        You should give Overcooled even more credit. Other than game reviews and occasionals, she’s done a lot of posts concerning psychology. Mainly, the surroundings of what causes a person to have a certain kind of personality.

        The Wonderful World of Anime Logic
        The Psychology Behind Persona 4
        Playing Doctor: Mixing Psychiatry and Anime
        Playing Doctor: Part 2
        Playing Doctor: Part 3

        • Overcooled says:

          Aww, thanks BB!

          Yes, this is psychology. I major in Psychology and Neuroscience so I like combining that with anime in my posts.

        • Gecko says:

          I know she’s done a lot, and I’ve read most of those posts, but I end up focusing on the ideas and how they apply to anime, and sometimes I don’t remember everything. I really liked the Playing Doctor posts, but hadn’t seen many of the shows, so I couldn’t keep the information linked in my mind. I usually need some kind of connection to other things to remember it all, and on days when I have to absorb a lot of events or information, I forget things that don’t have many connections.

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