Monday, March 28, 2011

The hidden brain: How our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives

By Shankar Vedantam

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

First, you may wonder what made me look twice at this book.  I read a “Science” editorial in the June 7, 2010, Newsweek, by Sharon Begley called, “The hidden brain: What scientists can learn from ‘nothing,” and enjoyed the article and thought Vedantam could shed additional light and substance on the subject.

Second, you may wonder at the outset, what credentials does Vedantam have for writing a book like this?  According to the back flyleaf, he “is a national correspondent and columnist for The Washington Post and a 2009-2010 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.”  

About his educational background, I found this at zzzzzzzzzzzzzz; “Vedantam has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering from India, and master's degree in journalism from Stanford University. Prior to his Washington Post employment, he worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Knight-Ridder's Washington Bureau, and New York Newsday.”

Verdantam was born in Bangalore, India, in 1969, and Wiikipedia also states: “Shankar Vedantam's articles touch on a wide range of subjects, most of them with links to current events. In his column in the Washington Post he routinely explores the overt and covert influences that shape people's attitudes to the world around them. His interests also include the role of science and religion in everyday life, and the effects of religious faith on health. In his articles he has explored the interplay between neuroscience and spirituality.”

For this 270-page book, there are nine pages of notes — 249 citations.

Well, Sharon Begley’s Newsweek essay was just the tip of the iceberg.  That is, she is talking about the mind at rest.  Verdantam, actually discusses some of the forces at play when the mind is at rest: “hidden cognitive mechanisms.”  Basically, what he disputes is the fact that “human behavior [is] the product of knowledge and conscious intention.”  

Verdantam’s entire book, replete with numerous stories, explains the “unconscious forces that [act] on people without their awareness or consent” (p. 6).

He writes about the stories he uses: “The selection of stories in this book is mine and mine alone.  To the extent they are wrong, misleading, or simplistic, the responsibilities lies solely with me.  To the extent that they are revealing and insightful—and not merely interesting—the credit mostly belongs to the hundreds of researchers whose work I have cited” (p. 7).

What is the hidden brain?  “The ‘hidden brain’ was shorthand for a range of influences that manipulated us without our awareness.  Some aspects of the hidden brain had to do with the pervasive problem of mental shortcuts or heuristics, others were related to errors in the way memory and attention worked.  Some dealt with social dynamics and relationships.  What was common to them all was that we were unaware of their influence” (p. 7).

Some of the subjects Verdantam uses to portray the effects of the hidden brain include the brain at work and at play, the brain displayed in mental disorders, in the life cycle of bias (the infant’s stare and racist seniors), the role it plays in gender and privilege, disasters and the lure of conformity, as well as in terrorism and extremism, the death penalty, politics and race, and in genocide.

If you accept his premise (which I do), then some of the experiences he discusses become a bit long and tedious, even though the book is well written and interesting.  The content of the book is 255 pages in length, and, for the most part, I feel Verdantam has chosen good examples that are engaging.  

Pistol Pete "Pete,” of Houston, Texas, wrote this four-out-of-five star review at “I thought this book was brilliant. Every chapter tackles different subjects and studies that try to explain how the subconscious works. I was very happy with the amount of research, especially scientific studies, that were detailed in the book. There are a lot of anecdotal stories as well, which are also necessary to illustrate the points.

“I found the book persuasive and interesting. How does our group affect our thinking? How does race come into politics through our subconscious? What motivates terrorists? There are many great questions that the author raises and his research into the subconscious helps answer many of the questions. I highly recommend this book to all readers interested in psychology.”

I would probably award the book three out of five stars.  Although interesting and well-written and supported, as I noted above, once you accept the author’s premise — as I did before I began reading the book — then it becomes quite long.  I’m not suggesting it is common sense, I am simply saying that it is not a premise that I question nor is it one that I would pursue (or have an interest in reading) in any depth.

This book is available at The hidden brain: How our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives

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