Turns out, it wasn’t the devil that made you do it. It was your “hidden brain.” That’s what Shankar Vedantam suggested at a recent lecture on unconscious bias at work, part of the 2013-2014 Deputy Director for Management Seminar Series. Vedantam said he “coined the term ‘hidden brain’ to describe mental activities that happen outside our conscious awareness.
“Is it possible,” he wondered, “that some of the [health] disparities we’re seeing are not the result of bad people behaving badly, but of well-intentioned people who are unintentionally doing the wrong thing? Is it possible that unconscious biases of well-intentioned people are responsible for these disparities that we observe?”
A science correspondent with National Public Radio whose reporting focuses on human behavior and the sciences, Vedantam suggested that sometimes the snap judgments or preconceived notions we exhibit turn out to be wrong not because we’re evil people but because we’re not concentrating on what we’re doing. Our brains are, in a sense, functioning on autopilot.
To illustrate false moves we make automatically, Vedantam showed several optical illusions that indicated how unconscious bias doesn’t just distort perception, but often alters the way things really are.
“Our minds change reality to reflect the biases that we have inside our own heads,” he explained.
Reading, Vedantam said, is a perfect example of the hidden brain at work. Once you learn to read and are accustomed to reading, he said, your mind takes shortcuts. You naturally skip or fill in, without consciously thinking about it. Unlike a new reader, then, you don’t register every single word on a page. Otherwise, you’d spend all day reading just one page.
In the same way, Vedantam argues, your mind in many cases anticipates—pre-judges—situations throughout daily life.
So, how do we overcome the effects that unconscious biases have on us? Vedantam says we can pay closer attention to our decision-making in certain situations, recognize the way we’re leaning and simply tug our minds in the opposite direction. In addition, since our environment shapes our mind, we can surround ourselves with experiences and friendships outside our comfort zone. If you broaden what goes into your thinking, then you broaden what comes out of it.
‘How reading in a second language protects your heart’
Psychologists at Bangor University believe that they have glimpsed for the first time, a process that takes place deep within our unconscious brain, where primal reactions interact with higher mental processes. Writing in the Journal of Neuroscience (May 9, 2012 • 32(19):6485– 6489 • 6485), they identify a reaction to negative language inputs which shuts down unconscious processing.
For the last quarter of a century, psychologists have been aware of, and fascinated by the fact that our brain can process high-level information such as meaning outside consciousness. What the psychologists at Bangor University have discovered is the reverse- that our brain can unconsciously ‘decide’ to withhold information by preventing access to certain forms of knowledge.
The psychologists extrapolate this from their most recent findings working with bilingual people. Building on their previous discovery that bilinguals subconsciously access their first language when reading in their second language; the psychologists at the School of Psychology and Centre for Research on Bilingualism have now made the surprising discovery that our brain shuts down that same unconscious access to the native language when faced with a negative word such as war, discomfort, inconvenience, and unfortunate.
They believe that this provides the first proven insight to a hither-to unproven process in which our unconscious mind blocks information from our conscious mind or higher mental processes.
This finding breaks new ground in our understanding of the interaction between emotion and thought in the brain. Previous work on emotion and cognition has already shown that emotion affects basic brain functions such as attention, memory, vision and motor control, but never at such a high processing level as language and understanding….
- Emotion Can Shut Down High-Level Mental Processes Without Our Knowledge (sott.net)
- Psychologists reveal how emotion can shut down high-level mental processes without our knowledge (medicalxpress.com)
- Bilingual Study Reveals How Emotion Can Shut Down High-Level Mental Processes Without Our Knowledge (medicalnewstoday.com)
- Emotion can shut down high-level mental processes without our knowledge, in our native language (sciencedaily.com)
- Brain Represses Bad Words for Bilingual Readers (sott.net)
- Our Unconscious and Social “Reality” (psychologytoday.com)