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Digging into the hidden subconcious of the brain


Do you ever find yourself wondering why you do the things you do every day, or reach the decisions you make? Most of the time, small everyday tasks and decisions aren't given much thought by our conscious mind, but our unconscious mind may always be thinking about them.

This week on "Take Care," Shankar Vedantam, a science correspondent for NPR who focuses on human behavior and social sciences, explains what he calls the hidden brain and his work on the topic. Vedantam is the host of the NPR podcast "The Hidden Brain," which has explored topics such as unbearable boredom, the art of forgery, and what drives romantic relationships besides love. He is also the author of the book, "The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives."


Vedantam coined the phrase the hidden brain to describe the subconscious mind, which he says is a topic most associated with Freudian research.


However, there is now a more recent theory regarding the subconscious mind as well. Freud believed the subconscious was a heaving mass of impulses and forces that change and shape how we behave, says Vedantam. Whereas the more modern theory says subconscious thoughts are a more mundane process; biases and habits that we're aware of in one domain can undermine us as we're doing other things without us realizing it, says Vedantam.

"So much of our minds operate outside of our conscious awareness," Vedantam said.

Vedantam's research has mostly been on the more modern theory, and has focused on variables that can be accurately measured rather than just hypothesized. But how he connects his research to relevant areas we experience all the time is what makes his research more appealing and easy to listen to in his podcast.

"[It's] talking about things that affect everyday people...that occupy almost all of our daily lives, and the idea that you can think about them with a certain degree of precision and a certain degree of empirical detachment," Vedantam said.

Vedantam says he first starts his topic search by reading a wide variety of academic literature, which he then stores in his internal hard drive until he finds how it can be relevant to people's everyday lives. He says he mostly does this by watching the news or making connections to a relevant trend at the moment.

"The best stories are really at the sweet spot of those two things. They actually are rigorous, and interesting, and thought provoking, but they're also topical and relevant so that people can say here's an idea I can take and actually apply in my own life," Vedantam said.

One of the most popular topics Vedantam spoke about on his podcast was performance of everyday activities. This dealt with explaining how we think performance is rated as good, bad, or average.

"This study was really making the case that's not how human performance is designed in most domains," Vedantam said. "What you have is a few people who are really spectacularly good at doing something, and the vast majority of us are really below average...because the ends are sort of weighted so much by these people who are the superstars."

Based on the feedback of this topic, Vedantam says he thinks many people applied this to how they look at work, sports, politics, and their everyday behaviors.

Although Vedantam has researched a wide variety of topics dealing with the idea of the hidden brain, one of the things that he says he has resonated most with him is the difference of focusing on things that are urgent and things that are important. Vedantam classifies something urgent as a task that if you don't get it done, things will fall apart. Whereas an important task is something you want to make time for, but if it doesn't happen life will go on.

"I, and everyone else, tend to prioritize the urgent over the important," Vedantam said. "It requires an act of conscious will, conscious deliberate effort, to say 'I'm actually going to make time each day for the things that are important, because if I don't...the urgent will simply swamp the important and I will never get to [them].'"

The hidden brain is a topic Vedantam continues to study, and find relevant topics on to increase our understanding of it.