“Hidden Brain” Podcast Will Make You Think Twice About Your Unconscious Mind

In the new NPR program, correspondent Shankar Vedantam connects rigorous science with people’s everyday experiences

This is your brain on science. (Movus/iStock)
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Why did I buy that set of steak knives I don't even need? Which online restaurant reviews can I trust? How come my number-loving friend opted out of AP math courses in high school?

These are the types of questions that social scientists tackle every day, trying to tease apart the complex and sometimes unexpected reasons humans do what they do. In 2005, journalist Shankar Vedantam reported a story for The Washington Post in which he explored unconscious bias and the social scientists working to understand it through implicit association tests. He became so fascinated by the influence of the unconscious mind on human behavior that he decided to dive further into the topic in a book called The Hidden Brain.

Vedantam then joined NPR as a science correspondent in 2011, and his radio reports on human behavior and social science quickly gained a loyal following. Now those listeners and podcast fanatics everywhere can hear more from Vedantam about the role the unconscious mind plays in their behavior in a new NPR podcast, aptly called Hidden Brain.

The first episode of the podcast drops on September 22, and a sneak peek is out now. We spoke with Vedantam to learn more about it. (The following has been edited for length.)

What is Hidden Brain?

The Hidden Brain has many different incarnations. If your question is specifically about the podcast, the goal of Hidden Brain really is to connect people’s everyday lived experiences with interesting and rigorous science. I think the great joy that I have in this work is finding moments when I can connect work that is rigorous and scientifically solid with the kind of experiences that people have in everyday life—the way they park their car, the way they read a restaurant review—and to basically say, look, there are ways in which science can illumine the life that you lead and help you think about your world with curiosity and freshness.

Where did you come up with the term?

So "hidden brain" is a term that I coined as I was writing my book a few years ago. It’s really a metaphor to describe the many things that happen in our minds that lie outside of our conscious awareness. And I think over the last 10 or 20 years there’s just been this explosion of research, empirically grounded rigorous research, that suggests that in everyday life, many of our perceptions and judgments and decisions are shaped by factors that lie outside of conscious awareness. Some of these hidden things are actually accessible if we try very hard to pay attention to them. But others are completely hidden and we actually have no ability to get at them even if we try very hard consciously.

What are some examples of topics you will cover in the podcast?

One of our early episodes, for example, is going to look at a pattern in communication where people are conversing with one another, but really talking past one another. This idea is called switch tracking. A couple of episodes later, we’re going to look at this idea that’s being explored in a lot of psychological research known as stereotype threat, which is this idea that if you believe that the world holds certain stereotypes about you, your concern that you’re the victim of those stereotypes is going to shape how you behave and how you see the world.

The tagline of the show is "A conversation about life’s unseen patterns." Can you give an example of an unseen pattern?

A central premise of Hidden Brain really is that once you identify these unconscious and hidden forces acting on us, it gives you some power and agency to actually do something about it. You can actually choose to make different choices once you’re aware that you’re being biased or once you’re aware that your judgments and perceptions are being subtly shaped by these factors that lie outside of your awareness.

Are there any studies or topics that your listeners have loved or hated?

I did a story a couple of years ago that connected the work of the philosopher Albert Camus with new research into why people get stuck in boring jobs. Camus had written this famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, about the man who rolls the boulder up and down the hill for all eternity. And the idea is Camus was dealing with this question of how we deal with drudgery and monotony and boredom in our lives, and how we actually should address this from a philosophical standpoint.

The new research was looking at why is it that many people are stuck in jobs that they find dissatisfying and boring … and it found that people sometimes choose occupations and professions and activities that are boring because they’re unwilling to take a chance on activities that might be more fulfilling, because they actually might carry more risk. And this idea of connecting the psychological research into people’s choices and their professions with this philosophical idea that Camus explained many decades ago really struck a nerve.

How much trust should people place in social science and human behavior studies?

I think there have been a lot of concerns raised in recent years about the accuracy and the reproducibility of scientific studies. Many of these concerns have been raised about studies that are in the social sciences, although I don’t think the social sciences are unique in terms having this problem. And the way that I think about many of these studies is I think of it is as being that each study sort of gives us a new picture to understand how the world works.

So when humans first looked up and saw the moon, they had theories about what the moon was. And several hundred years later, when we built telescopes and could look at the moon more closely, we could see different aspects of the moon that we hadn’t seen before, and we came up with new models of how the moon works. And then eventually when we sent satellites into space and astronauts to land on the moon, we saw the moon up close. Now each of these versions gives us a more accurate version of reality. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the previous version was wrong, it just means that it’s a different map.

What have you learned about yourself from reporting on human behavior?

I think my interest in the hidden brain stems from the fact that I think of myself as being a very rational and very deliberate person. I think I was drawn to it first of all because it seems so alien to me, so alien to the way I thought I lived my life. So part of the reason I think I continue to be fascinated with this whole field of the hidden brain is that at some fundamental level, I feel like it’s teaching me things about myself.

Is there any technology being developed that researchers might use to better study human behavior in the future?

I think there are a lot of interesting ideas that are being worked on right now. There’s research, for example, looking at whether you could study facial expressions as a window into people’s emotional states, and can those expressions tell us something that people are not able or willing to tell us when you just ask them the question. There’s a lot of work that looks at brain imaging that is trying to peer deeper and deeper into the way the brain works to say, can you understand from these brain and neurological processes how it is we think about the world. And in many ways I think some of these technologies are already providing us with very valuable tools to understand how the mind works.

I would argue that psychological techniques and experiments are also a technology. I would argue the implicit association test is a technology. It’s not a technology that uses a machine to peer inside the brain, but it’s a technology that really uses scientific techniques to say, how do we better understand what’s happening inside people’s heads. I am not personally enamored by the idea that the only technologies that are valuable are the technologies that come from machines. I think you can be very rigorous and base your work on empirical science even if you’re not using a brain scanner.

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