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  • Writer's pictureDevin Olivia Barton-Torres

Understanding the Hidden Brain: The Unseen Forces that Influence Everyday Life

Updated: Jan 3

A highlighted close up of neural pathways in the brain.

"The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Lives" by Shankar Vedantam (available here) is a powerful exploration of the hidden forces that shape our thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. These internal processes dictate how we understand, experience, and engage with the world around us. Vedantam focuses primarily on the influence of the unconscious mind in various aspects of society, but the ideas in his book hold significant implications for the more personal world of parenting, relationships, friendships, sex, intimacy, and even our sense of self. Vedantam's insightful analysis prompts readers to reflect on these areas of their lives and uncover the hidden biases that may be affecting their interactions and experiences.

In social work, we study the social-ecological model as a way to understand how different parts of our lives and the world around us influence each other. This model helps us see how our behavior and well-being aren’t impacted only by us and the people immediately around us, but also by the people and places we share community, workplaces, and society with. At the center of the nested circles that make up the model is the individual, and each layer extends out from there: family, community, society. Some models include additional layers to help understand the complex societal and institutional functions around us, but regardless of the number of layers or level of complexity, the model always follows this simple nested circle view. The Self is simultaneously influenced by and influencing the world around them, often in unseen ways.

Vedantam uses a similar nested circle visual to explain the layers of the hidden brain. The layers closer to the outside of the circle are closer to our level of consciousness, making them easier to understand. The further we dig though, the more embedded the layers are within the brain’s unconscious operations. Vedantam takes readers on a journey into the deepest circles of the hidden brain and explores how these automated psychological systems influence the way people make decisions, behave, and interact with the external world.

Understanding the Hidden Brain

Vedantam draws from psychology and neuroscience to explain how hidden forces within our subconscious and unconscious mind shapes our understanding of the world. He analyzes how the hidden brain works in relation to politics, economics, and health to demonstrate the widespread impact of internal biases and unseen forces on our daily decision-making patterns. He explores bias, stereotypes, and habitual patterns that inform our perception, attitudes, and actions in ways most people are unaware of. The hidden brain can be understood as operating in a similar nested circle as the social-ecological model, with the following layer:

  • Conscious Level: The thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes people are consciously aware of.

  • Subconscious Level: The implicit, or unknown, thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. These are often shaped by society, culture, and family.

  • Unconscious Level: The unconscious instincts, emotions, and motivators that influence our behavior.

  • Collective Unconscious Level: This is informed by Carl Jung’s archetypes work, in which there is a collective human psyche of archetypes, symbols, and patterns that influence beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

  • Cultural and Societal Levels: This includes the cultural and social norms, values, and expectations that shape our unconscious minds.This level reinforces the patterns of thinking operating at a subconscious or deeper level.

The Hidden Brain and Relationships

The unseen forces that influence how we vote, the careers we choose, and the beliefs that guide our lives are the same set of forces that also influence how we engage with and experience relationships with other people. All relationships, whether they’re platonic, familial, sexual, or romantic, are deeply affected by our hidden brains. These influences include who we’re attracted to or drawn too, the needs we’re trying to meet, our communication and attachment styles, and what love feels like. Exploring the subconscious and unconscious factors can reveal why we engage in relationship and friendship patterns that are unfulfilling or even harmful. An awareness of these factors increases our ability to make purposeful decisions about how we want to show up as friends, parents, spouses, partners, or lovers. Our limitations are understood and accepted without shame.

With an increased awareness of these patterns, we have the ability to challenge and overcome them so we can foster genuine and authentic connections. The book prompts readers to examine the implicit biases that may affect their interactions with others and encourages them to approach relationships with curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to confront and address their unconscious biases.

The unseen forces that influence how we vote, the careers we choose, and the beliefs that guide our lives are the same set of forces that also influence how we engage with and experience relationships with other people.

The Hidden Brain and Sex

Sexual desires, preferences, scripts, and fantasies are all influenced by the hidden brain. Who and what we find attractive, shame or stigma associated with sex, and the reasons we seek out or engage in sex are all rooted in our deepest layers of the subconscious mind. Vedantam highlights how societal and cultural factors shape our attitudes, desires, and expectations in these areas and how examining our unconscious biases around gender, sexuality, and power dynamics allows us to cultivate a more informed and intentional approach to sex and intimacy. This deep internal exploration ultimately leads to sexual liberation by revealing unseen parts of ourselves to play with free of judgment and shame. Sex can’t be experienced in isolation from the broader family, cultural, and social factors that informed our sexual development and experiences to begin with. By unpacking how we understand and experience sex as it relates to these factors gives us autonomy over which beliefs, values, attitudes, and behaviors to accept and which to reject. A thoughtful approach to create a sexual identity and experience that’s reflective of your unique needs, wants, and desires is a simple yet powerful way of claiming autonomy over one of the most intimate parts of yourself. Among these hidden forces includes:

  • Fear of disrupting social cohesion in pursuit of your desires.

  • Lack of education or awareness.

  • Power dynamics between partners.

  • Social norms regarding “appropriate” sexual partners, context, or experiences.

  • Trauma, particularly attachment, relational, and/or sexual trauma.

The Hidden Brain and Sense of Self

While the focus of "The Hidden Brain" is primarily on psychological and sociological aspects, it also has implications for spirituality. Vedantam's exploration of the unconscious mind invites readers to examine how their unconscious beliefs, biases, and conditioning may influence their spiritual journey. By becoming aware of these hidden influences, individuals can engage in a more intentional and authentic exploration of their spirituality. The book encourages readers to question societal and cultural expectations, embrace diversity in spiritual practices, and foster a deeper connection with their own inner wisdom and values.

"The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Lives" is a thought-provoking book that offers profound insights into the hidden forces that shape our thoughts, decisions, and behaviors. The broad societal focus of the book has valuable applications to the micro world of everyday life. Understanding the hidden psychological mechanisms that guide every decision we make is critical to being an intentional, thoughtful, and healing parent, partner, friend, and community member. The book reinforces the powerful connection between the political and the personal. Exploring the impact of our unconscious minds in the most intimate areas of life invites us to challenge social norms that have contributed to generational and family trauma, harmful family norms and systems, and individual traumas. Understanding core motivations and the deepest levels of the brain invites readers to be more mindful of the hidden influences that shape our lives, empowering us to make conscious choices that align with our values and promote personal and collective growth.

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