Wisconsin Public Radio Interview: Can we live without a hidden brain?

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A new interview explores what happens to people when they are deprived of their hidden brains.

Much of The Hidden Brain is about the problems that unconscious factors create in our lives — from the vagaries in our moral judgment to the ways in which suicide bombers are indoctrinated. A natural conclusion from these examples is that we would be much better off without the hidden brain. This idea turns out to be impractical, and also fails to account for the many positive things the hidden brain does for us each day.

In a chapter called Tracking the Hidden Brain (watch a video introduction to it here) I show what happens to a middle-aged woman in Canada who loses a part of her hidden brain — a disorder robs her of subtle mental skills that she needs to function in social settings. She not only loses the ability to relate in appropriate ways to her family and to her friends, but also develops a host of unusual behaviors that puzzle the people who know and love her best.

You can listen to the interview here.

The Leonard Lopate Show and Mike Pesca discuss The Hidden Brain and unconscious biases in disasters, politics and among small children

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I spent some time in the interview talking about an unconscious bias I discovered in my own three year-old daughter. Before she could tie her own shoelaces, she had already come to the conclusion that nurses always have to be women, and that doctors usually have to be men. Where do you think this bias came from? You can listen to the interview here or download an MP3 file, and learn what I think parents ought to be doing to confront the unconscious biases that can be observed in children right from the time they are toddlers — biases that stay with us well into adolescence and adulthood.

Much of the research into the biases of small children is described in Chapter 4 of The Hidden Brain, which is titled “The Infant’s Stare, Macaca, and Racist Seniors.” You can watch a short video introduction to the chapter here — scroll down to the section titled Table of Contents and Video Summaries.

Many people are familiar with the famous experiments conducted in the 1940s that showed the strong preferences that small black children had for white dolls over black dolls. A remarkable replication of the experiment was conducted recently, and you can watch a short video of the new experiment here.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about what you think parents can do to confront the unconscious biases of their children.

Salon: "A wide array of vivid true stories"

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“Of the many viral-video meltdowns pop culture has endured, few are as viscerally disturbing, as painful to watch, as Michael Richards’ racist rant during a 2006 stand-up appearance. As you’ll no doubt remember, the man better known as Kramer lashed out at a heckler in his audience with a shocking string of slurs, including the brutally memorable line, “Fifty years ago, we’d have you upside down with a fork up your ass.” The breakdown so outraged the general public that even today, if you Google “Michael Richards,” it auto-completes to “Michael Richards racist.”

Shankar Vedantam, a science writer with the Washington Post, uses the Michael Richards incident in his new book, “The Hidden Brain,” to illustrate the way he believes our unconscious can betray us — and reveal biases we wouldn’t even acknowledge to ourselves. Vedantam uses a wide array of vivid true stories to make his point: The tragic tale of a woman who is brutally beaten in front of dozens of onlookers illustrates how a crowd’s inaction can trick our brain into ignoring pleas for help; two transsexuals who’ve experienced both sides of the gender divide help illuminate how unconscious sexism can change lives.”

New York Times Review: An "entertaining romp through the unconscious mind"

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The New York Times review of The Hidden Brain appears this weekend. You can read it here. Here is how it begins:

Invisible forces that control our behavior have inspired our best story­tellers, from Euripides to Steven Spielberg. Whether we’re yanked around by jealous gods, Oedipal urges or poltergeists, the idea that we feel powerless to direct our own actions has a visceral appeal, one exploited by Shankar Vedantam in “The Hidden Brain,” his exploration of the unconscious mind.

Most previous popular treatments of subliminal forces haven’t been data driven. Vedantam, who until recently wrote the Department of Human Behavior column for The Washington Post, hopes to fill that gap. His entertaining romp through covert influences on human behavior began as a series of columns, and true to its genesis, it reads as vivid reportage overlaid with a sampling of science. Ranging widely from the role of social conformity in violence to snapshots of racial and gender prejudice, Vedantam draws expansive arcs between findings from social psychology and the nation’s sensibilities and voting patterns. “Unconscious bias reaches into every corner of your life,” he writes, thanks to a “hidden brain” generally inaccessible through introspection. As with crop circles, all we see are the traces left by covert attitudes, never the perp at the scene of the crime.

Colorful characters form the backbone of the narrative; we meet a bickering, long-married academic couple, a rapist with great teeth, a woman working the night shift at a tire factory, a woman suffering from a rare form of dementia and a cult member. What binds this motley crew together? All are victims of some form of irrationality — those imperceptible forces that often prompt our actions in the real world, the ones that are at odds with our ideals.

Haiti: Moral Judgment and Mass Suffering

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The Washington Post runs an excerpt from The Hidden Brain this weekend, and the excerpt should be available online starting sometime Friday.

The excerpt is drawn from the final chapter of the book, and explores the biases that affect human judgment in the realm of moral decision-making. The ideas in the excerpt are especially relevant right now, given the awful suffering inflicted on Haiti by the recent earthquake. What are the moral responsibilities of the rest of the world during such a calamity? Why does the world’s response so often fall short in the face of mass suffering?

If this is your first visit, here is some useful background. The Hidden Brain is a book that explores the many ways in which unconscious biases influence human beings in the course of everyday life. These biases alter human behavior in personal, professional and social settings, they affect how humans behave during disasters, and they play decisive roles in how we think about politics.

You can learn more about how this book came about here, start your own discussion group on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. Read reviews of the book, and see whether there are author events scheduled close to where you are.

You can pre-order the book — which hits bookstores next Tuesday — here.

"Your Brain Will Love This Book"

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More reviews from Amazon readers … This one from H.F. Gibbard

This has to be the most readable book about how the mind works that I have picked up in ages. There is not a dull chapter in the book, and the writing at times reaches a level worthy of a good novel. The ideas explored are fascinating.

“The Hidden Brain” is the part of our mind that is not ordinarily accessible to our consciousness through introspection. In other words, we don’t know that it is there, and can’t detect it just by thinking about it. But it controls many things that we do, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Vedantam concludes that it developed in human beings to promote survival under primitive conditions, and is still performing its functions today, whether they are appropriate to our current circumstances or not.

This is not entirely new. Freud and Jung both believed in powerful unconscious forces. Science fiction thrives on the idea of “monsters from the id” set loose by some alien technology. What makes this book worth reading is the way Vedantam brings current research on these topics to life. He starts with the simple and mundane, like a study that showed that pictures of staring eyes near an “honor system” coffee pot reduced employee theft. Then he turns to a case study of a woman with frontotemporal dementia, a horrifying condition that causes people to lose their social inhibitions without knowing what they’ve lost. He describes studies that demonstrate the reality of unconscious race and gender bias, even in people who would abhor such behavior at a conscious level. With consummate skill he draws us into the events of 9/11 and shows how our unconscious bias in favor of group consensus led to unnecessary deaths among its victims. He also shows the other side of the story: how peer pressure motivates suicide bombers and others who commit horrible acts like 9/11. The writing is of a quality rarely seen in a book of this type.

In the end, I wasn’t sure I was persuaded that the hidden brain is quite as intractable and mysterious as Vedantam makes it out to be. The whole point of many psychological and religious techniques is to make the unconscious conscious, and I think people can have some success at this. Vedantam doesn’t blame anybody for the things their hidden brain makes them do, but I think some people are more mentally lazy and willing to indulge their unconscious biases than others. Plus, I maybe have a little more faith in the role of education in counteracting the hidden brain than he does. But I felt like I learned a lot from this book, even when I disagreed with it.

New Amazon Reviews

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There are more reader reviews of The Hidden Brain on Amazon See

Dr Yuval Lirov: Vedantam, an accomplished science journalist, combines an exceptional story telling talent with modern psychology research to explore seemingly intractable questions, including why very young children exhibit racial preferences, how peaceful, professional family people become suicide bombers, and why smart and accomplished people make obviously dumb and even self-destructive decisions. The big lesson of this book is that people are powerfully influenced by things that they never consciously register.

Using engaging and absorbing case studies, Vedantam presents a theory about a second, hidden brain, which the human species developed through evolution. This hidden brain specializes in rapid analysis, kicks into action under certain conditions, and it often acts contrary to our own beliefs or common sense. Its danger is in that it is hard and often impossible for us to realize when we act according to our beliefs and when – according to our hidden brain. The central feature of unconscious bias is that we are not aware of it, so it’s able to powerfully manipulate the conscious mind to act against its own will.

Here is an example of Vedantam’s numerous and powerful analogies: “If the conscious mind is the pilot and the hidden brain is the autopilot function on a plane, the pilot can always overrule the autopilot, except when the pilot is not paying attention.”

An educational, entertaining, and an excellent book in every aspect.

Washingtonian: "A fascinating piece of explanatory reportage."

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The Washingtonian has a terrific new review of The Hidden Brain. See


Washington Read: January 2010

What We’re Reading This Month

by Drew Bratcher

One of the most compelling stories in Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain is about an incident that happened 15 years ago on the bridge between Belle Isle park and downtown Detroit. One hot summer night, a man dragged a woman through a station-wagon window and beat her bloody. Fleeing as he came at her with a tire iron, she leapt to her death in the rapids below. Dozens witnessed the assault, which lasted a half hour, but as if auditioning for roles in Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, no one came to the woman’s rescue while she was being attacked. 

To make sense of this episode and other puzzling human behaviors—from how educated individuals become suicide bombers to why a stranded puppy yanks our heartstrings more than genocide does—Vedantam began scouring a new field of psychological research that links our action, and inaction, to an array of unconscious influences, what Vedantam calls “the hidden brain.” The result is a fascinating piece of explanatory reportage, in the tradition of Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell, that has the capacity to sway public policy and spawn a popular franchise. Vedantam, a Washington Post science columnist, is set to turn the idea into a blog for Psychology Today.