KCBX Two-Way: Shankar Vedantam explains what's next on Hidden Brain podcast

Oct 12, 2016

NPR's hit podcast, Hidden Brain, explores the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior. There's several new episodes coming out this fall. KCBX's Bree Zender sat down with Shankar Vedantam, Hidden Brain's host and creator, to talk about making the podcast.

Bree Zender: Welcome to the program, Shankar.

Shankar Vedantam: Absoluetly. Pleasure to be here.

Zender: Great. So for those who don't know what it is, what is Hidden Brain?

Vedantam: Well Hidden Brain is the title of a book I wrote a few years ago, but it's also a term that I use to describe this world of unconscious activity that happens inside our head all the time. Everything that it shapes everything from how we see the world to how we make judgments to how we feel about things. And the idea that a large portion of how our minds work is hidden from us is unconscious is really sort of the premise of the book and the podcast that I've been doing for NPR the last year.

Zender: And what got you first interested in doing this type of reporting?

Vedantam: I have to say that it stems from the fact that I am constantly amazed at my own mind and the fact that my own mind doesn't quite behave the way that I expect it to behave. I think of myself as being very rational and deliberate person. And so to discover that there were whole sections of my mind that actually operate outside of my conscious awareness and that I have in many ways values and judgments that are completely at odds with my conscious values and judgments was a scary idea and I'm fascinated by that idea and in many ways my continuing interest in the subject reflects the fact that I continue to be amazed at all the things that our minds do.

Zender: What something that you would say you're amazed that your mind does?

Vedantam: Well, for example, I tell myself that I'm going to exercise regularly. I tell myself I'm going to make time every day to follow an exercise regimen I tell myself I'm going to eat healthy every day. And yet when the time comes I often don't make healthy choices. Now what's interesting is not that that happens because that happens to tons of us. What's interesting is that the next time I'm thinking about making that kind of resolution I'm happy to make that resolution in the naive belief that I'm going to follow through on it this time that I tell myself right. All those last times though they don't count. I really am going to follow through this time and of course that's some part of my mind I sort of know that isn't true. But I'm fascinated by how when we are making resolutions we make them and sort of complete naïve confidence that we're going to stick to it this time. And yet when we come to implementing those resolutions we find that were completely different people. And the idea that we really have these two minds inside us two different people almost inside us is endlessly fascinating because each time we are one of those people we can believe the other one actually exists.

Zender: What's been your favorite thing to report on the podcast thus far?

Vedantam: I have to say that one of the things that I counted as my few good qualities is that I'm inordinately excited by whatever it is I'm working on at the moment. So asking me to go back and pick my favorite subject is going to be very difficult because invariably I'm going to say it's what I'm working on right now. That is the most fascinating subject that I'm working on. We're actually in the process of putting together an episode that might come out next Tuesday that looks at the issue of what happens when women aspire to leadership positions or high office and the very interesting social science research that has looked at what happens to those women. How are perceptions of them shape and constrain how those women act and behave.

Zender: That's a good transition into my next question... What can we look forward to on the Hidden Brain podcast this fall?

Vedantam: Well, we're doing a number of different things that are tied to the presidential election because this is the podcast and people can listen to a podcast whenever they want to. Obviously many people will be listening to these episodes well after the presidential election has run. And so our goal in building many of these episodes is to build things that are timely but also have an element of war. David Remnick at the New Yorker once called, "timeless, timely and timeless." So we are building something that looks at female leaders and obviously there is a context to that right now because we have had prominent women running for the presidency on both the Republican and Democratic tickets. But in coming weeks we're also going to look at the subject of policing and the issue of law and order and the social science research on the phenomenon or the policing strategy that's called broken windows policing this. This week in fact today we're in. Earlier today we had an episode that looks at the history of immigration because immigration has turned out to be such an important part of the ongoing presidential debate. One of the fascinating things that I learned in the context of putting that episode together is that there has been this recurring pattern in American history where groups come to the United States and they often experienced discrimination and prejudice. But within about 15 to 20 years the very same groups are turning around and expressing prejudice and discrimination to the people who come after them. And this pattern has been repeated over and over again for more than two centuries. And I find that it's very ironic at one level but it's also fascinating because it tells us about how these hidden patterns that we are often not aware off are shaping the way we think about the world.

Zender: How did you get into podcasting to begin with?

Vedantam: Well, podcasting really grew out of the work that I was doing on the radio and that I continue to do on the radio. There's been a surprising amount of interest in the stories that I often have on the radio magazine shows especially Morning Edition. A lot of people have said you know we would like to have a deeper exploration of some of these ideas. And so when the podcasting boom came about you know a couple years ago we started thinking seriously is there a podcast version of Hidden Brain that would work well at the 20 or 25 minute length that we might not be able to get to at the three or four minute length on the radio. 

Zender: Why should somebody who is listening to the radio right now be interested in the podcast? 

Vedantam: You know, podcasts are really a way for people to find subjects that they love and they're interested in that they're not going to get enough off by listening to a general interest program. It's really the difference between reading you know a general interest magazine that covers a range of different things everything from politics to sports to entertainment to reading something that is more of a niche publication which basically says if you are interested in I don't know if you're interested in car saying this is a magazine for you and it's going to get into all kinds of interesting details for you. So what people will get if they listen to head and brain the podcast is a deeper exploration of some of the ideas that we touch on during the radio stories. It also gives us a chance to sort of get at the issues with much more complexity allows us to tell stories at greater length and with more narrative techniques than we might on the radio. Again we're sort of using the 20 or 25 minutes to have a more complete experience of what an idea is what you might do on the radio would be a much more condensed version.

Zender: And where can we find Hidden Brain the podcast?

Vedantam: Hidden Brain in the podcast is available on any podcasting platform. Many of our listeners are listening on the iTunes platform they're listening on the native podcast app that's on iPhones and iPads. You can also listen to it on Android devices. There are many different services that provide access to podcasts. They can also listen to it on the NPR website and through NPR one which provides a stream of Hidden Brain podcast episodes so really all that people have to do is if they want to listen to the podcast you know just go to the. Go to any internet browser and type in Hidden Brain and it will lead you to the many offerings and places you can listen to the podcast.