Unlocking The Secrets Of The 'Hidden Brain': New Program Debuts Sunday

Oct 6, 2017

This Sunday, Maine Public Radio debuts “Hidden Brain” with Shankar Vedantum.   Shanker has been exploring the social sciences in segments for NPR’s Morning Edition program, along with a “Hidden Brain” podcast.   He talked with Maine Public Radio’s Irwin Gratz about his new show, which will run for one hour, and air Sunday mornings at 11 on Maine Public Radio.

GRATZ: Good morning sir.

VEDANTAM: Hi Irwin.

GRATZ: Tell us first how you came to this exploration of human behavior you've been on.

VEDANTAM: You know, I think it started off about 15 years or so ago - I was doing a lot of reporting that looks at the mind, and looks at the brain and I realized there was this enormous body of research that was building up that essentially had found that the way we think is not the way that we think we think.

GRATZ:  You know, after listening to your Morning Edition segments for years, I take it there are no shortages of ways in which this manifests itself.

VEDANTAM: I think that's exactly right. I mean, because you're dealing with the complexity of human behavior that is, quite literally, endlessly interesting and endlessly complex. And so, you know, I've often wondered myself: Are we going to run out of material at some point? But the ocean seems very deep and there seem to be many, many, many fish in the ocean.

GRATZ: So let's talk a little bit about the new format you're going to be on for an hour. Will you use this time to explore single topics or multiple topics?

VEDANTAM: Each radio show will have a single theme, which we might explore through multiple points of view. Some radio show episodes will explore a single idea through a narrative story. So our opening episode, for example, pivots off a recent controversy in Silicon Valley where a Google software engineer said that the vast gender disparity in tech was because of innate differences between men and women.

And so our first episode is going to be an hour-long narrative exploration of a single family that tried to do something radical about two decades ago:  When the couple had a child, a daughter, they decided to raise her in a way that was gender neutral, in a way that tried to prevent her from being exposed to traditional male and female stereotypes. And the story would really follow this family and look at all of the social and financial and emotional costs that they paid, and also then look at the child and see how the child turned out. And so, in some ways, what we're going to try and do is combine things that are in the zeitgeist, things that are in the news, with narrative explorations and with science. 

GRATZ: You know, in addition to the Morning Edition segments, you also have a podcast recently where you explored how and why we avoid information that's either uncomfortable or just bad. Using that as an example, how are you hoping that people might be helped by learning about that information version?

VEDANTAM: So this is a great question. The podcast episode we had recently that looked at what we call the "ostrich effect" is based on a very interesting phenomenon in the brain, which is that many of us know, rationally speaking, that unpleasant information can sometimes be very valuable - you know, the fire alarm goes off when you're at work, or the doctor calls and says that your test results are in, or, you know, a financial consultant calls and says that your retirement accounts are going down the tubes. All of this is very painful information but it's also very valuable information that you should act on. 

Simultaneously, however, we have a rule in the brain, which is a very good rule of thumb, which says try and avoid things that are unpleasant or scary or that make you sad. And, in general, this is a very good guide to leading our lives in a way that moves us away from things that are unpleasant or scary or sad. The problem is that information has this dual nature to it, where the things that, in some ways, make us sad or make us scared or make us uncomfortable are also the things that are very valuable. So I think in trying to apply this model to what we're trying to do with a radio show, you know, we are going to be talking about many things in the radio show that in some ways are potentially sad or potentially difficult to hear because they tell us that the way we think our minds work is not always the way our minds actually do work.

But I think one thing the radio show will try and do is make this really accessible, and make this really fun and really humanize it with stories, so that people understand that even though, yes, the information can sometimes be challenging, there are ways to take it in a way that makes it more accessible, that makes it more interesting.