NPR's Shankar Vedantam Explores Our Hidden Brains

Oct 28, 2016

Shankar Vedantam, NPR's Social Science Correspondent and host of the Hidden Brain podcast
Credit (Photo: Gary Knight VII)

The Hidden Brain recently celebrated it’s first anniversary as an NPR podcast. WPSU’s Kristine Allen speaks with the show’s host, NPR Correspondent Shankar Vedantam, about the unseen mechanisms behind human behavior.

ALLEN: Shankar Vedantam, NPR’s Social Science Correspondent and host of the Hidden Brain podcast, thank you so much for spending time with us.

VEDANTAM:  Oh, happy to be here, Kris.

ALLEN: You have a graduate degree in journalism from Stanford and you were a reporter for the Washington Post before you came to NPR.  What drew you to reporting on psychology and social science?

VEDANTAM:  Well, I’ve been a science journalist for all of my career. But really over the last 10 or 15 years I’ve been drawn to the world of the mind and the brain and human behavior partly because I think it’s the area of science where there are the largest number of unanswered questions.  And it’s also the area of science that connects most directly to people’s lives.  People want to know: How can I be a better parent? How can I be a better manager or an employee?  How do I get myself to eat healthier? How do I get myself to exercise more often? And all these are questions of human behavior.

And to be able to connect rigorous and well-conducted science with questions that people are wrestling with every day, seems to be in the sweet spot of what constitutes great journalism.

ALLEN: Your reporting led to a book called The Hidden Brain.  Tell us about that.

VEDANTAM: Well The Hidden Brain was a book that I wrote a few years ago, that really explores this idea, that I still find surprising to this day, which is that when I think of my own mind, I feel like I’m aware of everything that my mind is doing and my thoughts and feelings are in many ways intentional and deliberate.

But really over the last 15 or 20 years, researchers have discovered that there is en entire world inside of our minds that is essentially hidden from us.  And I call this world the hidden brain. And the idea is that in our everyday lives, even though we feel as if everything is happening consciously and intentionally, much of it is actually happening behind this veil, behind this curtain.

And many of the things happening have a profound ability to shape what it is we think and feel and how we behave. And the idea that there’s this mismatch between how we feel that we are thinking and perceiving the world, and how we’re actually doing it, is endlessly fascinating to me.

ALLEN: How did the Hidden Brain podcast get started?

VEDANTAM: The Hidden Brain podcast really grew out of a series of stories I was doing on the radio for NPR, usually on Morning Edition. And the stories were often what I would call fairly geeky stories, looking at research studies that, uh, explore different facets of human behavior.  And I’ve been surprised at how interested people were in those stories, how fascinated they were.  And many people wrote to us saying we would love to have a deeper exploration of these ideas. 

And what the podcast allows us to do really is to go that step deeper: to be able to take the research idea and flesh it out, and show you all of its nuances and also to build great stories that allow people sort of a fuller experience of the ideas we talk about on the radio.

ALLEN: And some of these have been amazingly fun to listen to: the one on eating, and what affects how we eat.

VEDANTAM: I mean so this is the thing which is when we think about how much we want to eat, we imagine that our appetite is some fixed quantity, and it’s driven by sort of these biological forces: you’re stomach says “I’m hungry,” and so you eat. But really, eating is as much a psychological exercise as it is a physical exercise. You know there have been studies with paitients who have short term memory disorders, and what you often find with these patients is that you can sit them down, give them a full meal, and then bring them back in 45 minutes and they’ve just forgotten they’ve eaten a full meal.  And these people will eat another full meal!  And it sounds incredible, but they actually do.

One of the other findings that I find really interesting is that in uh school cafeterias if you keep the dessert tray not at – within arm’s reach of the students but you keep it on a shelf that’s just you know maybe five feet away from the student, and the student actually has to ask someone, “Can I please have a cookie,” and so someone actually has to physically reach out, get the cookie, and hand it to the student – even though it’s all available, the student can still choose the cookie, far fewer students choose to eat unhealthy food.

And so many of the choices we make are being made just simply because they are easier to make.  And so if you make healthy food the easier option, we’re more likely to eat healthy than unhealthy.  (4:19)

ALLEN: And you had a podcast that explored how ISIS uses psychology to recruit followers.  Can you give us the gist of what you discovered there?

VEDANTAM: Sure.  There’s been a lot of interest among social scientists, especially anthropologists, looking at what it is that drives people to radicalize or self-radicalize.  You know, what is it that’s driving people to listen to speeches on the internet and then say, you know, “I’m going to give up my job as a medical student in London and go to Syria to join the Islamic State.” And I think, in many ways, the podcast explores a number of different ideas, but one of the most important ideas it explores is that one of the things human beings often hunger for is a sense of meaning in their lives.  It’s not enough just to have a wonderful job and a safe life and a comfortable living, and a happy family.  I mean, those things are wonderful, and are very satisfying.  But if you give human beings the opportunity to live a life of meaning, a life where they feel that they’re living for something larger than themselves, a higher purpose than themselves, many people are willing to sacrifice all of the other things in order to reach that feeling of living a life of higher meaning.

Now, I will be the first to say that what ISIS is offering is not really a life of higher meaning, but I think part of the reason it’s been so effective at reaching out to so many young people is that it gives them the illusion that what they are choosing is a life of grandeur, a life of meaning, a life of purpose and heroism.  And that is one of the biggest appeals of ISIS.  And if you’re going to go after ISIS, it’s not enough simply to say, “ISIS is wrong and terrorism is wrong.”  It’s really important to give people a counterweight to that idea – to say look, there are other lives of meaning that you can live right here at home. (6:06)

ALLEN: There have been so many different subjects of your Hidden Brain podcast. Do you have a favorite one?

VEDANTAM: Well, you can ask me this question any day or any week of the month and I’m always going to give you the same answer, which is that the episode that I’m working on right now is my favorite episode (laugh). We’re actually very busy putting together an episode that looks at the challenges that women face as they try and reach for high office and assume positions of power.  And we’re going to look at the robust social science research  that talks about the very narrow path women often have to walk in order to be perceived as people who are both likeable as well as competent.

ALLEN: A timely subject.

VEDANTAM: Indeed.

ALLEN: I want to mention that you’ve also written fiction and plays.  You had a short story collection out, The Ghosts of Kashmir; and a full length play, Tom, Dick and Harriet, produced in Philadelpha.  Do you have fiction projects in the works as well?

VEDANTAM:  No.  It’s been a few years, really, since I wrote fiction.  And I think that the one thing that you didn’t say  - you were kind not to say it, but I’m going to say it – is that the fiction probably wasn’t very good (laugh). When I look out at the world, I can see many, many people who are easily much better than I was.  So I think I’m gonna stick with journalism and nonfiction for the moment. (7:15)

ALLEN: Shankar Vedantam, NPR’s Social Science Correspondent and host of the Hidden Brain podcast, thank you so much.  It’s been great to talk to you.

VEDANTAM: Thank you so much for having me.  It’s been a pleasure.