Thoughts on the “Hidden Brain”

I’ve always been one of those people who agreed with the concept that who we ARE is defined by our actions.  It’s not what we say or what our intentions are, but what we do that shapes our identities and characters.  How we treat other people falls under the “what we do” category.


Problem is, what we do is shaped by thousands of tiny decisions we make every day.  I’m not talking about big obvious decisions, but the tiny decisions we aren’t even aware we make.  We decide whether we want to have coffee first in the morning or watch the news; we choose to brush our teeth, or put on slippers…the list goes on.  Pretty much every action is an opportunity for choice, and when I first realized this I truly appreciated how much of my daily life is run on autopilot.  Whether we like it or not, what we do, and therefore who we are, is highly influenced by our autopilot choices.


If I had to consciously think about every decision of everyday, I wouldn’t have mental space or energy to think about anything else!  In this way, habits and behavior patterns that are supported by the “hidden brain” are useful, because it frees up our brains for bigger decisions.  I happen to think about science questions while shampooing my hair sometimes – it’s nice that I don’t have to focus on deciding whether or not to shampoo, how many times and for how long, whether I should use conditioner, etc.


However, I can see how this tendency – our brain’s natural inclination to simplify and make autopilot choices – can trip us up.  Making assumptions about a person because of race or sex might be ingrained in our brains early on, but that is the beauty of the brain.  It is plastic, dynamic, and can be retrained.  People who have habits they don’t like can change them through conscious effort, but over time that effort become less and less conscious, until it simply becomes ingrained behavior.


The author make a valuable point about the importance of recognizing when our “autopilot” is on, and I agree that that has to be the first step.  However, I would suggest that instead of trying to turn your autopilot brain off all the time, instead try to reset it.  Instead of having an autopilot assumption that says “X person is Y”, what if we train our autopilot to simply “X is a person”?

About Cat Cowan

2nd year DVM/PhD student at the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Studying immunology, vet medicine and aiming to stay in academia.
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