Shankar Vedantam, of 'Hidden Brain,' on Using Your Delusions

Posted by Cybil on March 1, 2021

If you listen to NPR regularly, you’ve likely heard the voice of Shankar Vedantam, the longtime science correspondent and host of the radio show/podcast Hidden Brain. Billed as “a conversation about life’s unseen patterns,” Vedantam’s flagship show explores human behavior and related social sciences.
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Hidden Brain is one of the most consistently fascinating shows in circulation, digging into twisty delights like the psychology of laughter, the familiar phenomenon of feeling “stuck” in life, and the amazing healing powers of gratitude as an attitude. His 2009 companion book, The Hidden Brain, explores the cognitive processes that rule our lives, of which we are generally and blissfully unaware.

Vedantam is back on shelves this March with Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain, cowritten with science writer Bill Mesler. The new book builds on ideas from The Hidden Brain and explores the frequent utility, and occasional necessity, of intuitive and nonrational thinking. Calling in via Zoom, Vedantam spoke with Goodreads contributor Glenn McDonald about science, empathy, and the life-changing power of a really good book.

Goodreads: When somebody corners you at a party and asks what your new book is about, what do you tell them?

Shankar Vedantam: Well, with the pandemic, I haven't gone to any parties for a long time. So I'm spared that question. [Laughs.] The book is really a meditation on something that I have come to understand, somewhat belatedly, in my life. I am a deeply rational, logical person. And I've always reached for rational, logical explanations for everything. I'm drawn to science and science reporting because I believe in the methods of science.

And yet, when I look at my own life—and the lives of my friends and neighbors and family—I see all kinds of ways in which logic and rationality are actually limited in terms of what they can accomplish. And sometimes they're limited even when it comes to accomplishing the goals of logic and rationality. In other words, logic and rationality are not always the best way to get to logic and rationality, which I find really upsetting as a logical and rational person.

GR: Do you have a specific example in mind?

SV: The classic example is something like climate change, right? The evidence for climate change is quite dramatic, quite persuasive. It comes to us from different fields of study: environmental science, pollution studies, oceanography, the study of the Arctic and sea life and species decline. There are just so many different ways in which you can see how climate change is affecting us.

And yet, vast numbers of people either don't believe in climate change, or if they believe in it, they don't act as if they believe in it. It doesn't actually change their behavior. And we keep acting like that the 367th study is going to convince people when the first 366 studies have not.  

Much of the time, our behavior is not shaped by what is rational; it’s shaped by habits, by norms, by our cultures, by our beliefs. These are the things that are powerful in shaping our views. So if you want to fight climate change, you have to be able to enlist those beliefs, which are not necessarily the domain of the logical, rational brain. We may need to use older, emotion-based systems to accomplish those goals.
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GR: We recently spoke with Adam Grant, who has a new book out called Think Again, and he says much the same thing. We need to reevaluate not just what we are thinking, but how we are thinking. Does that sound right?

SV: That does sound right. I know Adam, and we feel like our books are sort of cousins, if you will. They have a similarity to them.

One of the ways that our ideas that have come together is in the subject of how you persuade people. There's a section in both books about the inadequacy of logic and argument in persuading people. There’s this idea that we all think and behave like scientists—someone presents us with evidence, and we change our minds. Now, the interesting thing is that not even scientists behave like scientists. They argue like anyone else. I think one of the deep messages of Useful Delusions is the importance of addressing conflict with compassion rather than with arguments. To basically start with asking questions: Why is it that you don't believe in climate change? What would it mean for you to believe in climate change?

This is a very old idea, in many ways. In psychotherapy, when somebody comes in for treatment, the first job of the therapist is not to tell the person the correct answers to their problems. The first job is to understand the other person's point of view. You’re trying to work from the inside out, rather than coming from the outside in with a solution.

GR: Your book suggests that we all have our delusions, about one thing or another, and that some delusions aren’t just useful; they’re essential.  

SV: Yes, the one area where people often have those delusions is in relationships, especially when it comes to children. You know, when I became a dad, I became a different person than I was before. My relationship, not just to my child, but my relationship to the world changed in a profound way.

Now you can look at that very scientifically and say that it’s the result of hormones being released. Your brain is being rewired so that you will take care of your child and perpetuate the species. The reason our brains change when we fall in love—or when we become parents—is precisely because evolution has determined that certain delusional beliefs about our loved ones and about our children are really important for us to maintain.

Now think of the things that parents do for their children. All the sacrifices we make, the lengths we go to, are based on this delusional belief. Every parent thinks that their child is somehow magical or important—a miracle. It is the best compared to all of the other creatures that have ever existed in the history of the planet. It's a delusion, but it's a very important and valuable delusion to have. Imagine if parents just treated their kids like any other little creature running around. How would that change what we are willing to do for them?

GR: Your podcast Hidden Brain has been a huge success. What is the benefit of the podcast format for you as a writer and science communicator?

SV: I think the great benefit of podcasting is that it allows for niche audiences to find a place where they can find things that are of interest to them. You know, in many ways, what we do on the podcast is a very geeky kind of experience. I spend a lot of time reading academic papers, and almost all the guests are Ph.D. academics, talking about peer-reviewed studies and so forth.

For a long time, there was an idea in radio that people don’t want to hear big ideas. But the fact that we have a very large audience suggests that people want to have the hour-long conversation about empathy, the hour-long conversation about philosophy.

GR: Goodreads is all about books and book culture, so I was wondering: Do you remember the very first book that you responded to as a kid?

SV: Hmm, well, I was always a reader, I don't know if I can tell you the first books that I read. But I feel like words and language have always come very naturally to me. Reading has always felt like second nature to me.

The connection that people have with reading and books, it runs really deep. I think many of the most transformative experiences of my life have come through reading books. And I know that sounds a little weird; you're supposed to say it was visiting the Grand Canyon or going to see Paris, and I've done those things. But there's something about reading the book that is sort of really transformative.

Reading shows you worlds that you might not have ever been able to imagine, or it takes you back in time, or into characters whose lives you could never inhabit. The power of books is so profound that sometimes when you close the book, it almost feels as if the real world feels less real than the book. And that's what I love about reading books.

GR: Are there any books you’ve read recently that you particularly liked?

SV: I'm looking at my shelf over here, and a lot of the books are about human behavior, the social sciences. There's a book here called Surfing Uncertainty by Andy Clarke, which I find really interesting. I talked about this idea in Useful Delusions as well. It’s the idea that, when we think about the world that we see, it seems to us that we're taking it in almost like a camera, instantly capturing an image of the world.

But really, it turns out that what's really happening in our brains is actually something much more complex and interesting than that. The things that we see as being reality are, in fact, just mental models that our brains are producing. They help us navigate our lives effectively. So even at the level of basic brain architecture, we’re using all kinds of illusions and delusions that help us navigate our world more successfully.

GR: When you read for pleasure, do you tend to read multiple books or is it strictly one book at a time?

SV: First, I don’t necessarily finish all the books I start. If a book doesn’t hold my attention, I'll stop and then I'll start reading something else. But I think you're asking, Can you read books in parallel? I think if I’m reading a book that is truly engaging, and that I'm really into reading, I can't imagine doing it in parallel. That would be very difficult for my brain to do.

Shankar Vedantam's Useful Delusions will be available in the U.S. on March 2. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

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message 1: by Margarita Be. (new)

Margarita Be. I enjoyed reading this interview and I can't wait to read this book!

MochaLatte's Book Hut Another book on my list!

message 3: by TMR (new)

TMR Interesting interview.

message 4: by Lauren (new)

Lauren I really enjoy Hidden Brain-have done from time it was just a brief segment on my local NPR station. Always interesting and engaging, it is something that never fails to capture my attention. I read very little nonfiction these days but this book will be an exception for me. Thank you Shankar for always presenting a fascinating subject to explore!

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