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The Hidden Brain
Cover of The Hidden Brain
The Hidden Brain
How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives
Borrow Borrow
Most of us would agree that there's a clear—and even obvious—connection between the things we believe and the way we behave. But what if our actions are driven not by our conscious values and beliefs but by hidden motivations we're not even aware of?

The "hidden brain" is Shankar Vedantam's shorthand for a host of brain functions, emotional responses, and cognitive processes that happen outside our conscious awareness but have a decisive effect on how we behave. The hidden brain has its finger on the scale when we make all our most complex and important decisions: It decides whom we fall in love with, whether we should convict someone of murder, and which way to run when someone yells "Fire!" It explains why we can become riveted by the story of a single puppy adrift on the ocean but are quickly bored by a story of genocide. The hidden brain can also be deliberately manipulated to convince people to vote against their own interests, or even become suicide terrorists. But the most disturbing thing is that it does all this without our knowing.
Shankar Vedantam, author of The Washington Post's popular "Department of Human Behavior" column, takes us on a tour of this phenomenon and explores its consequences. Using original reporting that combines the latest scientific research with compulsively readable narratives that take readers from the American campaign trail to terrorist indoctrination camps, from the World Trade Center on 9/11 to, yes, a puppy adrift on the Pacific Ocean, Vedantam illuminates the dark recesses of our minds while making an original argument about how we can compensate for our blind spots—and what happens when we don't.
From the Hardcover edition.
Most of us would agree that there's a clear—and even obvious—connection between the things we believe and the way we behave. But what if our actions are driven not by our conscious values and beliefs but by hidden motivations we're not even aware of?

The "hidden brain" is Shankar Vedantam's shorthand for a host of brain functions, emotional responses, and cognitive processes that happen outside our conscious awareness but have a decisive effect on how we behave. The hidden brain has its finger on the scale when we make all our most complex and important decisions: It decides whom we fall in love with, whether we should convict someone of murder, and which way to run when someone yells "Fire!" It explains why we can become riveted by the story of a single puppy adrift on the ocean but are quickly bored by a story of genocide. The hidden brain can also be deliberately manipulated to convince people to vote against their own interests, or even become suicide terrorists. But the most disturbing thing is that it does all this without our knowing.
Shankar Vedantam, author of The Washington Post's popular "Department of Human Behavior" column, takes us on a tour of this phenomenon and explores its consequences. Using original reporting that combines the latest scientific research with compulsively readable narratives that take readers from the American campaign trail to terrorist indoctrination camps, from the World Trade Center on 9/11 to, yes, a puppy adrift on the Pacific Ocean, Vedantam illuminates the dark recesses of our minds while making an original argument about how we can compensate for our blind spots—and what happens when we don't.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpts-
  • From the cover CHAPTER 1

    The Myth of Intention

    Five days before her thirtieth birthday, on August 24, 1986, Toni Gustus was out on her patio. It was a Sunday, about four o'clock in the afternoon, and Gustus was in a T-shirt working on some plants. She had just moved to Massachusetts from Iowa; the only contact she had in town was the person who had hired her for a job at the United Way in Framingham. She had found a small two-bedroom basement apartment with a living room that opened onto a sunken patio. When she stood on the patio, the street came up to her chest.

    A man strolled by and asked for directions. His eyes seemed glassy and his speech was slurred. Gustus did not know how to direct the man, but her Midwestern upbringing kept her from giving a curt answer and turning away. She told him she was new in town and unsure of the local geography. She pointed him in a direction she thought might be helpful. The man did not turn away. He took another step toward the patio and asked if a different street could take him to the same place. She told him what she knew, but she was starting to feel uncomfortable. It was as if they were suddenly having a conversation. The man took another step to the edge of the patio. Gustus told the man she had to go inside. She turned, and he jumped down onto the patio. He grabbed her arm. She raised her voice immediately and told him to leave. He asked for a glass of water. Gustus could smell alcohol on his breath. She protested, and he started to shove her back into the apartment.

    A driver in a passing car saw a man and woman having what seemed to be an altercation on a patio. The driver went to the corner, turned around, and came back for another look. By the time the car got back to the spot, the patio was empty. The driver moved on.

    The intruder was not much taller than Gustus. She was about five foot five, and he may have been five foot nine or ten. But he was considerably stronger. The moment he shoved her into the apartment, she started fighting. She screamed, and he clamped a hand over her mouth. He was carrying a portable music player, and Gustus seized the headphones cord and wound it around his neck. He seized her throat. They struggled, trying to subdue each other, until Gustus felt she was going to pass out. Something more primal than fear kicked in. Gustus let go of the headphones cord and went passive. It wasn't just that he was stronger: He was so drunk that she feared he might asphyxiate her and not even know it. No matter what happe ned, she wanted to get out alive.

    The moment he started removing her clothes, another instinct kicked in. Gustus started to memorize details about the man. He was white and in his early twenties. He had a little black cross on one arm that may have been ink or may have been a tattoo. He had dark blond hair that fell over his forehead and his ears. His hair was parted in the middle. His nose was long in proportion to his face. His eyes were blue and relatively narrow. He had a tapered jaw. On and on she went, looking for distinctive features. She swore to herself, I am not going to forget this face.

    After he raped her, the man allowed her to dress. He put on his clothes. He was not done; it appeared he wanted to have a conversation. Gustus could not believe he wanted small talk. In a sympathetic voice, he told her that "Sometimes it is not good for women when it is like this."

    Gustus was stunned: He had no idea what he had just done. He was subdued for now, but who knew how long it would last? Screaming for help was out of the question; she had tried that, and no one had responded. She had to get out of the apartment. Calmly keeping up...
About the Author-
  • Shankar Vedantam is a national correspondent and columnist for the Washington Post and a 2009 Neimann Fellow. He lives in Washington, DC.
Reviews-
  • Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness

    "In The Hidden Brain, one of America's best science journalists describes how our unconscious minds influence everything from criminal trials to charitable giving, from suicide bombers to presidential elections. The Hidden Brain is a smart and engaging exploration of the science behind the headlines--and of the little man behind the screen. Don't miss it."

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The Hidden Brain
The Hidden Brain
How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives
Shankar Vedantam
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