NPR's Shankar Vedantam Brings 'Hidden Brain' To Idaho

Feb 4, 2015

NPR social sciences correspondent Shankar Vedantam is speaking Thursday in Ketchum at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.

Vedantam regularly connects public radio listeners to scientific studies that show how unconscious factors can influence people without their awareness. Vedantam has written a book on the topic and calls these subconscious drivers the “hidden brain.”

“We feel like we go through our life in conscious command of our world,” Vedantam says.  “We know what we know, we see what we see, we talk to whoever we want to talk to, and we make judgments. And all of this feels conscious and deliberate and intentional.”

But over the last two decades, Vedantam says there’s been huge amounts of research in the social sciences that shows unconscious factors are driving our decisions and judgments. 

Vedantam says these factors are powerful, but also “insidious” because most people are unaware of them. 

Staying up to date on social science research means Vedantam dedicates up to two days a week simply reading various studies. He takes detailed notes, which he often comes back to years later.    

“I have a very extensive database of ideas that I’ve collected over the years so that when a news story breaks, I’m often able to go back to that database and say ‘this is something that I read three or four years ago that might be relevant to this news story that’s happening right now’,” he says.

His work at NPR is similar to the kind of reporting Vedantam did at times for the Washington Post. He admits, though, when he moved to NPR in 2011, he wasn’t certain his style of journalism would translate well to radio.

“In some ways it’s uncharacteristic for what people think of as good radio,” he says. “It’s not narratively driven, it’s not tape driven, it’s really ideas driven. And so when I came to NPR, all I was doing was following the passion I have for ideas and the excitement that I feel when I’m confronted by a new idea and I’m trying to share that every week.”

Vedantam says he’s been amazed at how well his segments have been received by NPR listeners.

In Ketchum, he’ll discuss how our subconscious affects the ways we think about, produce and appreciate art. He says it’s the first time he’s applied the hidden-brain philosophy to the arts.

You can learn more about the event, and buy tickets, here

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