Shankar Vedantam may be a familiar name, along with his book title “The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.” He is often on NPR sharing his wisdom about, well, the everyday life of our brains. It’s a good read if you don’t want any detail on what actually is going on inside our skulls. He’s more interested in the ways the “hidden brain” exerts influence than in the how. Vedantam reminds us just how little our conscious minds are in control, unless we are paying very close attention. All is not lost, however, since he concludes that we can turn toward reason ahead of instinct and intuition to solve the problems perpetuated by our “hidden brain.” And all the preceding chapters have great examples of the power of the hidden brain to get us into trouble.
Getting ready to tip your restaurant server? You will unconsciously leave a bigger tip if the waiter mimicked you and touched you casually. Good news for the server. Think you can teach your kids not to be prejudiced? Not so fast, and not so easy, since stereotypes are rarely obvious these days, but sneak into our hidden brains, where they stubbornly resist change even when we hear stories that challenge those assumptions. It doesn’t help that most of us don’t think we’re prejudiced (He offers several websites to test this out.) Disheartening to every parent out there trying to teach good values to their kids, when even a story with an African American hero didn’t budge their beliefs, regardless of their own race.
How about the hidden brain’s power during 9-11? Vedantum dissects the connections we have with the people in the same room, and shows how group-think hijacks rational thought, unless we physically step around a corner, which loosens our ties to the group, and we can think better. He analyzes the Jim Jones tragedy of the suicidal cult, explaining why some folk were susceptible even to the death of totally irrational loyalty, and how this shows up in suicide bombers (who aren’t crazy, as we all like to think.) He ends by explaining why our brains are so easily overwhelmed by numbers of victims in tragedies, and are wired to respond one to one.
His main point is to wake us up to the power of our hidden brains. (Our brains are wired to think, “O, but this doesn’t apply to me!) His example was the most powerful part of the book, one that I have repeated over and over: An average swimmer, he was out snorkeling, when he thought to himself, “Wow! I have really improved! Look how far and fast I’m moving!” But he hadn’t done any conditioning! And then came time to go back to shore, and he thought, “O my goodness, I am so weak! What made me think I could do this! I”m not getting anywhere!” And the only thing that had changed was the current – The invisible current. While I am dubious that sheer logic stands a chance against false but dearly held beliefs, I do believe opening our eyes to the invisible forces from within our hidden brains and surrounding us in this world gives us power over them, so we can choose and act wisely. Our “hidden brain” doesn’t have to be in the driver’s seat of our behaviors. All in all, an entertaining, if a tad simplistic, take on our “hidden brain.”