After making a silly mistake, it's not uncommon for a person to say, "Oops — I was on autopilot." In his new book, The Hidden Brain, science writer Shankar Vedantam explains how there's actually a lot of truth to that.
Our brains have two modes, he tells NPR's Steve Inkseep — conscious and unconscious, pilot and autopilot — and we are constantly switching back and forth between the two.
"The problem arises when we [switch] without our awareness," Vedantam says, "and the autopilot ends up flying the plane, when we should be flying the plane."
The autopilot mode can be useful when we're multitasking, but it can also lead us to make unsupported snap judgments about people in the world around us. Vedantam says that when we interact with people from different backgrounds in high-pressure situations, it's easy to rely — unconsciously — on heuristics.
Racial categorization begins at an extremely early age. Vedantam cites research from a day-care center in Montreal that found that children as young as 3 linked white faces with positive attributes and black faces with negative attributes.
"Now, these were children who are 3 years old," Vedantam says. "It is especially hard to call them bigots, or to suggest that they are explicitly racially biased or have animosity in their hearts."
Vedantam says the mind is hard-wired to "form associations between people and concepts." But he thinks that the links the children made between particular groups and particular concepts were not biologically based — those judgments came from culture and upbringing.
"We tend to think of the conscious messages that we give children as being the most powerful education that we can give them," Vedantam says — but the unconscious messages are actually far more influential.
He says that for every 50 times a year a teacher talks about tolerance, there are many hundreds of implicit messages of racial bias that children absorb through culture — whether it's television, books or the attitudes of the adults and kids around them.
"And it's these hidden associations that essentially determine what happens in the unconscious minds of these children," Vedantam says.
'Take Back The Controls'
In American society, colorblindness is often held up as the ideal. And though it's a worthy aspiration, Vedantam says it's a goal that isn't rooted in psychological reality.
"Our hidden brains will always recognize people's races, and they will do so from a very, very young age," Vedantam says. "The far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning, to help us shape those associations in more effective ways."
Going back to the autopilot analogy, Vedantam says it's not a problem that the brain has an autopilot mode — as long as you are aware of when it is on. His book, The Hidden Brain, is about how to "take back the controls."
So if the human psyche is just a big constellation of conscious and unconscious cognition — which thoughts represent the real you?
"Most of us think of ourselves as being conscious, intentional, deliberate creatures," Vedantam says. "I know that I think of myself that way: I know why I like this movie star, or why I voted for this president, or why I prefer this political party to that."
But doing research for this book changed all that, Vedantam says.
"I have become, in some ways, much more humble about my views and much less certain about myself. And it may well be that the hidden brain is much more in charge of what we do than our conscious mind's intentions."