Friday, May 7, 2010

Mike C. Reviews The Hidden Mind

Shankar Vedantam is a national science reporter at The Washington Post who writes a weekly column on human behavior. Recently named a Nieman fellow at Harvard, Vedantam has a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford and an undergraduate degree in electronics engineering. As well, he has authored a short story collection, The Ghosts of Kashmir. In The Hidden Brain, Vedantam shows how our unconscious minds can affect the choices our conscious minds make, and he does this in a sensibly-organized text, using clear, jargon-free language, while citing real-life events and both private and public studies to vividly (and, at times, unforgettably) illustrate the point in question.

The author starts by considering the unconscious mind in some fairly mundane settings, one concerning an office coffee station where he shows that many workers’ contributions to the coffee kitty (people are on the honor system to chip in) are affected to a real degree by the presence of a surreptitious picture of a pair of eyes. A little later, he looks at some dynamics occurring beyond the merely personal level, instead looking, for instance, at sex discrimination, citing the experiences of transgendered people and how the treatment they now receive as men is so different from the treatment they used to receive as women (and vice versa). Vedantam then looks at some of the more dramatic events that the hidden influence of groups can have, as a life is taken on a bridge in Detroit, and lives are both saved and lost in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The book ends with considerations of the unconscious mind regarding the criminal justice system, the world of politics, and one’s own moral values and judgment. Both kinds of evidence (studies on the one hand, particular instances on the other) presented by Vedantam are effective in their ways. The numbers found in a study regarding handgun use in the state of Washington over a lengthy period of time are staggering, as are federal research numbers on the gun-related deaths of children, be it by murder, accident or suicide. Data such as these can be valuable tools in the study and understanding of whatever subject the data concern, but the immediacy and intimacy of individual cases, and there are a number Vedantam presents, usually leave an impact that numbers alone cannot.


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