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Book Review: The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam

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Have you ever wondered where "gut" feelings come from? According to Washington Post science writer Shankar Vedantam's new book, it's not the gut; they come from the "hidden" brain. The hidden brain is all the stuff that goes on in our heads without our conscious awareness. You may think, "Big deal. I know that I breathe without having to think about it," and you'd be right, but only partly right. The automatic functions Vedantam has in mind cover a lot more territory and have a great deal of influence on our behavior. Think Freud without  the obsession with sex.
The hidden brain is the patterns of association on which our minds are built. We are very adept at making associations because it served us well, when those who could make an association after one exposure were the ones who survived (seeing a lion eat your friend makes you run from lions next time). Vedantam catalogs, with stories from the courts, genocides, suicide bombers, elections to an unlikely romance and the rescuing of a puppy, many of the vital areas of life where the hidden brain comes into play. For the most part, he relies on the work of social psychologists rather than those who stick people in MRI machines to look at their brains.

My impression from an early anecdote in the book, about a Canadian woman whose personality changes when she develops fronto-temporal dementia, was that Vedantam may be a science journalist, but he must never have studied psychology. It has been known for over 150 years that frontal lobe damage strips away civilized behavior. Phineas Gage, anyone? Also in this section, Vedantam makes a poor analogy when he says table manners are unconscious. Table manners are not something outside of our awareness; we are taught them as children and can describe when asked. They are like driving a car. Once mastered, the behavior doesn't require focused attention, but you hardly do it without realizing it.

The section on the origins of racism and sexism is so amazing, however, it makes up for the initial weaknesses of the book. He starts with studies of very young children in North America, both black and white, that demonstrate children develop racist views by the age of three even though their parents don't talk about race. They pick it up from the world around them, without anyone having to tell them explicitly, and lessons learned this early go into the hidden brain. When children's brains mature and they become able to reason, they can see the folly in their early associations and override them. But those early associations never go away; they remain to influence us, particularly when our attention is overloaded or we are stressed. When reason is unavailable, those early associations take over.

The story of two transgendered biology professors at Stanford that Vedantam includes is the one that, as a woman, really got my attention. In the closest thing to a laboratory experiment on the influence of gender on people, the story demonstrates shocking role reversals for these two very smart, very accomplished people, one who went from being a woman to being a man, and one who went from being a man to being a woman. The transgendered man suddenly found himself taken more seriously. The transgendered woman found the opposite, and also saw her pay fall to the lowest 10% of her peer group.

These illustrations of the hidden brain at work are instructive and interesting, but I wish Vedantam had devoted a chapter to how to deal more effectively with the hidden brain's influence. His only solution is to bring hidden biases into the light, and no doubt this is what we need to do. But he does not offer a unified discussion on how to proceed. He believes the Western civilization is built on the false assumption that people are rational and will act in their own best interests, but then he leaves of each to our own individual devices to decide what to do about it. 

Perhaps I am asking too much of a journalist. His job is to tell stories, not to create movements, academic, social, or otherwise. It is up to us, his readers, what to do with this information about the hidden brain. I am doing my part, I guess, by writing about it.  If any of these stories intrigue you, I urge you to get the book and read it, and see what you think of the hidden brain.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.
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