Shankar Vedantam's book "The Hidden Brain" is subtitled how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives.
I'd add: and choose our favored form of spirituality or religion (or lack thereof).
I've only read the first few chapters of The Hidden Brain. But my wife, a retired psychotherapist, has listened to the audio book in its entirety. She gave it high marks, so I decided to order a hardcover copy.
Vedantam's basic premise is solid. It's backed up by lots of scientific research. (Vedantam writes the Washington Post's "Department of Human Behavior" column, so he knows his science stuff.) He writes in the introduction:
I saw that a vast gulf had grown between what experts were learning about the mind and what most people believed. Important institutions in our society were oblivious to this new research... All these theories [to solve social problems] were based on an assumption -- that human behavior was the product of knowledge and conscious intention.
We believed that if you educated people, and provided them with accurate information, and offered them the right incentives, and threatened them with suitable punishments, and appealed to their better natures, and marked the exits clearly, the errors would vanish. Bad outcomes had to be the product of stupidity, ignorance, and bad intentions.
...I made a deliberate decision to personify the hidden forces that influence us in everyday life. I coined a term: the hidden brain. It did not refer to a secret agent inside our skulls or some recently unearthed brain module. The "hidden brain" was shorthand for a range of influences that manipulated us without our awareness.
... Unconscious bias was not caused by a secret puppeteer who sat inside our heads, but the effects of bias were as though such a puppeteer existed.
Now, I'm not saying that somehow we agnostics, atheists, spiritual skeptics, and free thinkers aren't also under the sway of the hidden brain.
But since we're more respectful of modern science than religious true believers, we have a better chance of understanding how our views are influenced by our neurology -- rather than God-designed theology.
Which means, we know that what we consider to be true may not be. Nothing is 100% certain.
Vedantam's first chapter tells the harrowing tale of a woman, Toni Gustus, who had been raped. During the hour long ordeal she concentrated on memorizing the features of her attacker.
Police officers administered a rape kit and asked her to tell them everything distinctive about the rapist. Eventually she was able to pick out a man, Eric Sarsfield, from photos, seeing him directly at the police station, and hearing his voice.
Gustus said she was 95% sure that the man in custody was the rapist. Still, she worried about the remaining 5% doubt. Had she identified the right man? Then...
There was a Presbyterian church in town that Gustus had long known; it was a place of refuge and comfort. She was a person of faith, and the church always renewed her. She used to sing in the choir, and the choir director had been her voice teacher.
Sitting in the safe space of the church, ensconced by family, Gustus suddenly felt the burden of doubt lift from her shoulders. She was not 95 percent sure that Eric Sarsfield was the rapist; she was 100 percent certain.
Remember: the woman had seen her attacker clearly. This wasn't a case of blind faith, like someone coming to accept Jesus as her savior even though she obviously had never been in the company of someone who died two thousand years ago.
Sarsfield was convicted of rape. He spent thirteen years in prison. Then Gustus heard from the district attorney. A DNA test had been conducted. It showed that Sarsfield couldn't have been the rapist.
There is abundant research showing that our mood states -- comfort and peace, anger and envy -- influence our memory and judgment. Gustus's doubt about Sarsfield was a source of discomfort; the church offered Gustus comfort.
The two things had nothing to do with each other -- except that it is impossible to feel both comfort and discomfort at the same time. Discomfort, not comfort, was Gustus's real friend in the situation.
By soothing it away, she erased the signal she had that something was wrong. Instead of attending to the fire, she unintentionally disabled the fire alarm.
And marvelously illustrative of how doubt often is a pointer to truth, a fact that religions do their best to sweep under the have faith! rug. Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable.
But the hidden brain, says Vedantam, "is designed to be fast, to make quick approximations and instant adjustments." It values speed over accuracy. It smooths over exceptions to rules, leading us to wrongly believe that we are absolutely right and others are absolutely wrong.
Humility before the mysteries of the hidden brain is in order. Vedantam says that we will never figure out the hidden brain's workings, as Keanu Reeves was able to do in The Matrix.
Pure awareness is a fantasy. Enlightenment, if this means seeing things as they really are, is a fantasy. Freedom from mental bias is a fantasy.
However, we can realize that we're living in a magic show of our own making, and that we'll never learn how the tricks are performed -- nor even when a trick is occurring.
When a magician performs an illusion, people strain to see through the deception. Implicit in this effort is the belief that illusions are always out there. You enjoy a magic show because illusions are supposed to be different from the stuff of reality.
But what if they aren't?
What if we are being constantly fooled, tricked, and hoodwinked -- not by some actor dressed in a cape but by our own brains? And which is the more successful illusion, the one that ends with a bow and applause, or the one that feels so real we never stop to think about it?