How NPR's Podcast "The Hidden Brain" Is All About You

You won't see things the same way again.

A gold medalist stands triumphantly on an Olympic podium, waving to the crowd. The two winners flanking his sides hold their smiles steady as the camera pans over them.

Who do you think looks happier: the silver or the bronze medalist?

After combing through 1992 Olympics footage from Barcelona, psychologists found that bronze medal winners appeared more ecstatic than those who won silver. This phenomenon, called counterfactual thinking, is a fixation on what might have been.

That means even though you’re objectively better off, you feel worse — so while silver medalists were displeased because they almost got gold, bronze medalists were overjoyed that they even got in on the action.

Once you notice the pattern, it can’t be unseen. And that unveiling is what NPR’s new weekly podcast, The Hidden Brain, promises with each 20-minute episode.

Your brain has secrets of its own.

“I'm always on the lookout for science that can actually connect very, very deeply with where people actually are in their lives,” said host Shankar Vedantam, an NPR correspondent and regular contributor to Morning Edition. That includes how you park your car, brush your teeth, and talk to your boss.

In other words, every mundane thing that you do.

But to Vedantam, those routines aren’t mundane at all. He’s been fascinated with the mystery meat inside our heads for the last dozen years.

During his decade as a Washington Post science writer, Vedantam learned that our brains aren’t entirely forthcoming about what goes on behind closed folds — and as a “very rational and deliberate” person, he found this, well, unsettling.

To him, there’s power in detecting patterns among our daily disarray. His probes led to his 2010 book, The Hidden Brain.

You won't see things the same way again.

Take this classic video, oft shown in introductory psychology classes. It has a simple instruction: Count how many times the people wearing white pass the ball. (Go ahead and watch if you're curious.)

View this video on YouTube

You might miss a key thing: A person in a gorilla suit walks across the screen and even pauses in the middle to beat its chest. It exemplifies our selective attention, or how we ignore irrelevant information when bombarded with stimuli.

Vedantam is so inclined to point out theories like this that he worries it’ll irk people around him. “I start to hold my tongue because if I was to have my way, everything that I would do in my life would be connected to a social science experiment.”

Science can be as astonishing as magic.

Social psychology experiments can feel like a magic trick in that they reveal something that had been visible all along, Vedantam said. With some gentle nudging, he helps celebrities suss out the outcome of experiments (like those mopey Olympians) in a recurring game called "Mad Scientist."

Then there's another forthcoming game about a mystical world that uses distraction, suspense, and some possible light dancing to wow you.

You guessed it: magic.

"Magicians are constantly using various biases and factors of the human brain in order to pull off their tricks," said Vedantam. "In some ways, magic is actually this rudimentary laboratory to understand how the mind works."

Vedantam earnestly wants to implant a little piece of information inside your brain so that the next time you're at the grocery store, stuck in traffic, or in a meeting, you're able to remember something that might actually come in a little useful.

And who knows — maybe learning your foibles are similar to others' might even make you feel better. Because after all, if you're going through something, chances are someone else is, too.

The Hidden Brain premieres Sept. 22. Catch all of the episodes over at NPR or subscribe to them on iTunes.

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