Friday Review

The hidden brain

Writer Shankar Vedantam, author of the book "The ghosts of Kashmir", in Bangalore. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash, 15-8-2005

Writer Shankar Vedantam, author of the book "The ghosts of Kashmir", in Bangalore. Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash, 15-8-2005   | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash_K


Shankar Vedantam talks of the hidden brain – a brain’s autopilot which drives many of our actions and behavioural patterns.

Ideas come tumbling forth in Shankar Vedantam’s talk on his book “The Hidden Brain”. And that should not be surprising considering he is talking about the very source of ideas, the brain. The essence of what he says is that we all have a hidden brain which covertly dictates our actions. “Theories about the unconscious mind go back centuries…in the last decade or two we have got many new tools which give us an insight into what I call the hidden brain…,” Vedantam says as he tells us he avoided the word ‘unconscious’ brain because it is overloaded with Freudian symbolism. He says, “… earlier the unconscious mind was filled with seething impulses and powerful forces. In contrast, the unconscious mind that has been unearthed in recent studies is rather mundane.

The analogy that I like to use is that the unconscious mind that has been discovered now is very much like the auto pilot function that we have in a plane…it plays a very useful role but it is problematic if you are flying through a thunder storm on auto pilot.” Vedantam says, “The Hidden Brain is a term that I coined and does not refer to a secret part of the brain but is a metaphor much like the ‘selfish gene’ and is used to describe a very large range of forces that affect our everyday lives, from our romantic relationships to financial decisions to the way we think in disasters, to our moral judgements…the fact that the hidden brain is mundane should not suggest that its effects are in any way mundane…its effects are actually profound.” Vedantam begins with an illustration from a psychologist’s office where he says near a beverage vending machine, a notice at eye level gave the price of coffee, tea and milk etc. There was an ‘honour’ box into which users had to drop the payments. The psychologist tried an experiment of changing the illustrations on the notice: flowers one week and a pair of eyes another. This went on for a ten weeks after which she found the users had not even observed that the notice had an illustration. But, says Vedantam, “This very small change from week to week produced a giant effect in people’s honesty in paying for their tea or coffee. On weeks where the picture showed a pair of watching eyes, honesty levels soared…On weeks when the picture showed daffodils and tulips, honesty levels plummeted. This is a very simple example of the unconscious mind at work…it shows that a part of our mind that we do not think about consciously, is a part of our mind that influences us, our behaviour.” Vedantam’s three-year-old daughter, for example, would not accept him playacting the role of a nurse because she had never read a story book featuring a male nurse.

It is the unconscious brain that makes us follow the herd, builds our biases which we are not even aware of and in fact lies at the root of many of our actions and we do not even know that. The impact penetrates our actions at home, in our workplace, as bystanders watching injustice, making moral judgments, even at the stock market. He gives a very telling example in that many Americans viewed Tony Blake as more American than Barrack Obama…of course not consciously. He gives a fascinating account of the experience of trans-genders and how the change in sex proved the “hidden” biases.

So he says it is necessary to address and understand the existence of our hidden brain because even though we, in all earnestness may think we are being objective as we sit in judgement on others, what we are actually doing is hunting out evidences to suit an inherent bias. “We should try and make more of the decision of whether to do something consciously or unconsciously. There are times in our lives when the autopilot serves very well. People in love usually overestimate their partners…and such people tend to have more stable relationships…to do away with this bias would result in vastly increasing the divorce rates…”

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 4:05:54 AM |

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