Each week host Shankar Vedantam goes on a journey to our Hidden Brain— processes of the human brain which are just outside of our conscious awareness. He interviews experts who have spent years researching their chosen topic in fields like neurology and behavioral economics, and everyday people who have experienced the effect themselves. An example is the episode When you Need it to be True which juxtaposes discussions of research into people who cling to beliefs that are proven wrong with the story of a woman who was the victim of a con.
I found this gem through my local MPR station. Vedantam was also a social sciences contributor. A part of the appeal of this podcast has been my shift to a more practical mindset. What matters is does it work? It is clear the experts Vedantam interviews really are experts, who bring nuance to often controversial topics. In the modern world we have so much knowledge we don’t use because it threatens our ideologies.
After listening to the Creatures of Habit episode, I decided to use the advice on how to form a habit and adopt a strategy to have a reward I only get while doing a healthy behavior. I made Hidden Brain my exercise podcast, which meant I would only listen to it while working out, or finish the episode I started while working out. It took me almost two years to work through the backlist, but it definitely gave me something to enjoy while working out.
Many episodes serve as inspiration for my blog posts, and I have a notebook full of ideas from the show I haven’t fleshed out yet. I love episodes where someone shows how research challenges accepted wisdom. There have also been series that explore different views of the same topic. Unchallenged assumptions are the ones that have the most power, because they are so insidious. Keeping an open mind to challenging ideas is hard work. In the abstract it is easy to argue that a belief about human behavior that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny needs to be challenged, but as humans we often have too much invested in our assumptions and beliefs to let them go easily. The Double Standard talks about how hard it is for people to identify their own bias, even if they can recognize bias in others.
Some episodes are just interesting stories. The Tale of the Cowboy Philosopher is about a late con artist that also compiled the most thorough volume about American country music, told through his daughter and the son of one of his friends. Lonely Hearts is the story of a decades long con, that when it was revealed those conned claimed it had helped them through difficult times. Each episode has an Unsung Hero segment, which has now been spun off into its own podcast called My Unsung Hero. The Unsung Hero is where the host takes the time to give a thank you to someone who helped get an episode together, maybe someone who found a gem that pulled everything together while researching or who helped them with the IT issues. The spinoff podcast allows listeners to record stories of their own unsung heroes, people who have made a difference in their lives that often they don’t know the name.
The flip side is many of these strategies that can be employed to better ourselves are also strategies that can be employed to manipulate us. Choose Carefully talks about the different ways research shows how choices are presented to us can change the decisions we make. We all want to believe we are completely rational creatures in charge of our own destiny, but many episodes like In the Air We Breathe show how much is lurking under the surface.
There are plenty of books on my to be read list after listening to Hidden Brain. As a geek, I love being able to learn new things through my podcasts. I also like being able to take the knowledge of how humans work and apply it to my own life.