NPR Host Shankar Vedantam Discusses Why Parts Of The Brain Remain Hidden
Speaker 1: 00:00 It's an anniversary hidden brain, NPR, science and storytelling podcast about how and why we think the way we do is celebrating four years as a podcast and two years as a radio show host. Shankar Vedantam is celebrating by talking to public radio stations across the country about what he's looking forward to exploring in the next years. Shankar Vedantam, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for having me. Morning. Now the name of your show, hidden brain comes from the bestselling book that you wrote about 10 years ago. Is that unconscious part of our brains just as hidden now as it was then? Speaker 2: 00:39 That's a good question and in many ways the hidden brain refers to a whole range of mental activities that lie outside of conscious awareness and, and some of those activities we can become conscious off with with effort, but there are many parts of our minds that are simply outside the realm of introspection. So certainly in terms of whether we can become more conscious of our hidden brains, there are certainly elements of our minds that we can become more mindful about, if you will. But there are also many parts of our minds that are sealed off from us permanently. Speaker 1: 01:08 And why is that? Speaker 2: 01:11 Well, when you think about what your brain does and think about it from an evolutionary perspective, your brain is really been designed to help you function and adapt to the world around you. And it turns out that in order to do this, there are multiple things that you should be paying attention to, but there are lots of things that you also don't need to be paying attention to. And what the brain has is basically, you know, essentially does and has evolved to be this way, is it tries to present to you the things that you should actually be worried about or you should care about while outsourcing everything that you don't have to care about, to essentially the hidden brain. Um, you know, so a simple example would be if I asked you to tell me your name, you would say your name was Maureen. Speaker 2: 01:49 And really what you're aware of is that I've asked you the question and you've given me the answer, but we know that in order for you to have heard my question and for you to give me the answer, a number of things need to have happened. Uh, your eardrums need to have picked up the, the sound waves and the sound waves now had to be converted into electrical signals that are sent to the brain, which then decodes them into words and puts them together into sentences. And then you extract the meaning from that sentence and you understand this as a question and then you go to our memory areas of your brain and retrieve the answer. And then the motor cortex of your brain tells your mouth to form the words, my name is Maureen and you're giving me the answer. Now, all of those things have to have happen for you to answer the question, but of course all of them are sealed off from introspection. You have no idea how your brain did all those things and no amount of thinking is going to show you how I did it. Speaker 1: 02:38 I see. Well from the wide range of subjects that you cover on your show, I have to imagine that there is a great deal of research going on into how the brain works. Can you tell us about something that you're especially interested in when it comes to brain research? Speaker 2: 02:55 Uh, there are a number of different areas that I think are really fascinating that are on the horizon. Uh, one of the biggest areas that has a lot of implications for our lives is the role that algorithms are playing in many of our lives. So when you think about many aspects of our lives today, uh, the people making the decisions or the, uh, are not actually human beings. Uh, many times decisions are being made for us by machines that in some ways are or at least claim to be superior to human beings in terms of how well they're able to make decisions. So when you go to a doctor's office for example, and you get a scan taken, there are some, um, uh, diagnoses which are actually better made by algorithms than by human beings. Uh, anyway, this, this, this, the, the role of algorithms is only going to increase as there are many, many more areas in which machines outperform humans and machine judgment turns out to be superior to human judgment. Speaker 2: 03:46 But there's also comes with a whole host of problems because now you have systems that essentially are nonhuman, that are making very important decisions for us and they raise really important philosophical and ethical questions. Um, let's say for example, I have an algorithm that's able to predict whether you're someone who is likely to reoffend if you're released from prison and the algorithm is actually superior to predicting your risk of reoffending compared to a human being. How would we feel if an algorithm said, you know, person a should be given parole, person B should not be given parole. How would we feel about that? There's something about that that feels off to us that a machine is basically telling us one person can go free and one person can, even when the machine is actually able to make better decisions than human beings, there are elements of those decisions that feel really problematic and really achy. Speaker 2: 04:35 At a moral level and one of the things that we are following is this intersection of this new world of algorithms and big data and how it intersects with our intuitions, our moral, our moral emotions. You know Sean, cause sometimes science reporters get in trouble with scientists because reporters want to make things accessible and interesting and sometimes things are not accessible. Their research is not terribly interesting. Have you ever found yourself in a situation like that? You know, I have to say that hidden brain has afforded me a great luxury, which is that it's, it has two, it has two advantages that have actually prevented this from happening. I think most of the time the four, the first is, you know, we, we have the length and the time to explore issues in depth. I think one of the reasons I think a lot of reporters sometimes or a lot a lot of scientists feel that journalists over simplify what they're saying is because the journalists have very, very compressed windows in which to communicate complex ideas. Speaker 2: 05:36 And when you have two minutes to explain a very complex idea, you end up simplifying it to the point where you might not be doing justice to the idea itself. Um, the other big advantage that we have I think and has prevented this from happening, prevented sort of this oversimplification from happening is that the audience for hidden brain in many ways as a self-selected audience. I mean this is especially for the podcast of course, but it's also true for the radio show, which is you're likely to tune into hidden brain if you're interested in the subjects that hidden brain, uh, talks about. And we are not a general interest program or a program that's focused primarily on people who are interested in questions related to human behavior. And again, what this means is that the audience has the patience to listen to ideas that are explored and explained at length. I've been speaking with Shankar Vedantam, host of the podcast and the NPR radio show, hidden brain. You can hear his radio show Saturdays at three Sundays at one right here on KPBS FM Shankar, thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me.