Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


Read: The Hidden Brain

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

All human beings suffer from hubris, that we alone have the capacity to think and to be logical. René Descartes famously said, "Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am.)" Thus, he pinned his very existence to the fact that he is able to feel himself think. But what if, our brains aren't always the transparent thought process we've always thought it to be?

Science writer Shankar Vendantam sheds the light on some of the brain's hidden corners in "The Hidden Brain." Appropriately, I chose this rather at random while browsing through my library's digital ebook collection. What I read inside was surprising, riveting and disturbing. 

The book's subtitle is: "How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives." Indeed, the book clearly and engagingly uncovers the many ways our brain shortcuts to give us solutions, subtly affecting our everyday decisions. 

"The 'hidden brain' was shorthand for a range of influences that manipulated us without our awareness," Vendantam writes. It is the silent part of ourselves that help us make the mundane of decisions, which is why we hardly ever notice them. "The job of the hidden brain is to leap to conclusions. This is why people cannot tell you why one politician looks more competent than another, or why one job candidate seems more qualified than another. They just have a feeling, an intuition."

Some of his findings are lighthearted in nature (such as the discovery that people give larger tips, make more aggressive investments, are more optimistic about their chances on bright and sunny days as compared to gloomy days; that largely anonymous IPO companies with more pronounceable names outperform companies with hard-to-pronounce names by 11.2 percent on their very first day of trading; that waitresses that echo back a customer's speech received 140 percent larger tips as compared to those who didn't), but other discoveries are darker in nature. 

For me, one of his most worrisome findings, showed that in a Montreal day care center, children as young as three years old associated white faces with positive attributes and black faces with negative attributes. The children were obviously too young to be called bigots, but where did they get this obviously discriminatory associations from? 

Vedantam says it isn't biological, but the effect still comes from a child's culture and upbringing. Though we often talk about racial equality, the hundreds of implicit racial baises we unconsciously show end up seeping into our children's brains. The stimuli can come from television, books, or even the attitudes and reactions of adults and other children around them. After some thought, I'd have to concur. After all, how many villains have we seen whose faces were covered in shadow? Who wouldn't associate evil with darkness (even of skin)?

What then is the solution? Not to brush racial inequality under the table, but to bring it out and talk about it. In an NPR Morning Edition interview, he says: 
"Our hidden brains will always recognize people's races, and they will do so from a very, very young age," Vedantam says. "The far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning, to help us shape those associations in more effective ways."
This is only one of the book's revelations. Vendantam also investigates how group behavior can sometimes lead to tragic consequences in disaster situations (as in 9/11); how suicide bombers are slowly manipulated; how exaggerated attention to a single issue can skew our view of the world and affect our national budgets (as in the US's hyper-inflated defense support). By studying the career trajectories of the transgendered, Vendantam shows readers that yes, indeed, gender bias is insidiously at play, to the detriment of women. 

In "The Hidden Brain," Vendantam uncovers our brain's tendency to influence our decisions. With a myriad of cases and actual research, he pokes at our inflated sense of self and asks us to be more wary of ourselves. Though we will always live with this hidden part of ourselves, Vendantam writes, "Good people are not those who lack flaws, the brave are not those who feel no fear, and the generous are not those who never feel selfish. Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it." Reading this book is part of doing something about it.

Find out more about the "Hidden Brain" on Vedantam's website


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