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Why did I buy that set of steak knives I don't even need? Which online restaurant reviews can I trust? How come my number-loving friend opted out of AP math courses in high school?
These are the types of questions that social scientists tackle every day, trying to tease apart the complex and sometimes unexpected reasons humans do what they do. In 2005, journalist Shankar Vedantam reported a story for The Washington Post in which he explored unconscious bias and the social scientists working to understand it through implicit association tests. He became so fascinated by the influence of the unconscious mind on human behavior that he decided to dive further into the topic in a book called The Hidden Brain.
Vedantam then joined NPR as a science correspondent in 2011, and his radio reports on human behavior and social science quickly gained a loyal following. Now those listeners and podcast fanatics everywhere can hear more from Vedantam about the role the unconscious mind plays in their behavior in a new NPR podcast, aptly called Hidden Brain.
The first episode of the podcast drops on September 22, and a sneak peek is out now. We spoke with Vedantam to learn more about it. (The following has been edited for length.)
What is Hidden Brain?
The Hidden Brain has many different incarnations. If your question is specifically about the podcast, the goal of Hidden Brain really is to connect people’s everyday lived experiences with interesting and rigorous science. I think the great joy that I have in this work is finding moments when I can connect work that is rigorous and scientifically solid with the kind of experiences that people have in everyday life—the way they park their car, the way they read a restaurant review—and to basically say, look, there are ways in which science can illumine the life that you lead and help you think about your world with curiosity and freshness.
Where did you come up with the term?
So "hidden brain" is a term that I coined as I was writing my book a few years ago. It’s really a metaphor to describe the many things that happen in our minds that lie outside of our conscious awareness. And I think over the last 10 or 20 years there’s just been this explosion of research, empirically grounded rigorous research, that suggests that in everyday life, many of our perceptions and judgments and decisions are shaped by factors that lie outside of conscious awareness. Some of these hidden things are actually accessible if we try very hard to pay attention to them. But others are completely hidden and we actually have no ability to get at them even if we try very hard consciously.
What are some examples of topics you will cover in the podcast?
One of our early episodes, for example, is going to look at a pattern in communication where people are conversing with one another, but really talking past one another. This idea is called switch tracking. A couple of episodes later, we’re going to look at this idea that’s being explored in a lot of psychological research known as stereotype threat, which is this idea that if you believe that the world holds certain stereotypes about you, your concern that you’re the victim of those stereotypes is going to shape how you behave and how you see the world.
The tagline of the show is "A conversation about life’s unseen patterns." Can you give an example of an unseen pattern?
A central premise of Hidden Brain really is that once you identify these unconscious and hidden forces acting on us, it gives you some power and agency to actually do something about it. You can actually choose to make different choices once you’re aware that you’re being biased or once you’re aware that your judgments and perceptions are being subtly shaped by these factors that lie outside of your awareness.
Are there any studies or topics that your listeners have loved or hated?
I did a story a couple of years ago that connected the work of the philosopher Albert Camus with new research into why people get stuck in boring jobs. Camus had written this famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, about the man who rolls the boulder up and down the hill for all eternity. And the idea is Camus was dealing with this question of how we deal with drudgery and monotony and boredom in our lives, and how we actually should address this from a philosophical standpoint.
The new research was looking at why is it that many people are stuck in jobs that they find dissatisfying and boring … and it found that people sometimes choose occupations and professions and activities that are boring because they’re unwilling to take a chance on activities that might be more fulfilling, because they actually might carry more risk. And this idea of connecting the psychological research into people’s choices and their professions with this philosophical idea that Camus explained many decades ago really struck a nerve.
How much trust should people place in social science and human behavior studies?
I think there have been a lot of concerns raised in recent years about the accuracy and the reproducibility of scientific studies. Many of these concerns have been raised about studies that are in the social sciences, although I don’t think the social sciences are unique in terms having this problem. And the way that I think about many of these studies is I think of it is as being that each study sort of gives us a new picture to understand how the world works.
So when humans first looked up and saw the moon, they had theories about what the moon was. And several hundred years later, when we built telescopes and could look at the moon more closely, we could see different aspects of the moon that we hadn’t seen before, and we came up with new models of how the moon works. And then eventually when we sent satellites into space and astronauts to land on the moon, we saw the moon up close. Now each of these versions gives us a more accurate version of reality. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the previous version was wrong, it just means that it’s a different map.
What have you learned about yourself from reporting on human behavior?
I think my interest in the hidden brain stems from the fact that I think of myself as being a very rational and very deliberate person. I think I was drawn to it first of all because it seems so alien to me, so alien to the way I thought I lived my life. So part of the reason I think I continue to be fascinated with this whole field of the hidden brain is that at some fundamental level, I feel like it’s teaching me things about myself.
Is there any technology being developed that researchers might use to better study human behavior in the future?
I think there are a lot of interesting ideas that are being worked on right now. There’s research, for example, looking at whether you could study facial expressions as a window into people’s emotional states, and can those expressions tell us something that people are not able or willing to tell us when you just ask them the question. There’s a lot of work that looks at brain imaging that is trying to peer deeper and deeper into the way the brain works to say, can you understand from these brain and neurological processes how it is we think about the world. And in many ways I think some of these technologies are already providing us with very valuable tools to understand how the mind works.
I would argue that psychological techniques and experiments are also a technology. I would argue the implicit association test is a technology. It’s not a technology that uses a machine to peer inside the brain, but it’s a technology that really uses scientific techniques to say, how do we better understand what’s happening inside people’s heads. I am not personally enamored by the idea that the only technologies that are valuable are the technologies that come from machines. I think you can be very rigorous and base your work on empirical science even if you’re not using a brain scanner.
Ask a modern-day treasure hunter what ship they’d most want to find and many would say they’d give their right arm to discover the wreck of the San José, a Spanish treasure ship that went to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea in 1708.
Well, as it turns out, researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the Colombian Navy, Maritime Archaeology Consultants and Switzerland AG did find the “Holy Grail” of shipwrecks in 2015, and only recently received permission to tell the world about the find. The treasure trove of gold, silver and gems it holds is worth an estimated $1 to $17 billion, reports Lauren Landrum at CNN.
According to a press release an expedition to find the legendary treasure galleon was launched in 2015 with researchers combing the seas using the Colombian Navy’s research ship ARC Malpelo. WHOI provided an autonomous underwater vehicle called REMUS 6000, which surveyed the Barú Peninsula during a first expedition in June of that year. The team returned to the location for a second go-around, locating the San José on November 27. “During that November expedition, we got the first indications of the find from side scan sonar images of the wreck,” WHOI expedition leader Mike Purcell says. “From those images, we could see strong sonar signal returns, so we sent REMUS back down for a closer look to collect camera images.”
REMUS got within 30 feet of the wreck, close enough to image the ship's unique canons. In later dives, researchers captured images of dolphins engraved on the canons, positively IDing the wreck as the fabled ship.
WHOI research engineer Jeff Kaeli was alone in his bunk when images of the cannons first appeared. “I just sat there for about 10 minutes and smiled,” he tells CBS News. “I'm not a marine archaeologist, but...I know what a cannon looks like. So in that moment, I guess I was the only person in the world who knew we'd found the shipwreck."
Now, of course, the whole world knows, but the researchers aren’t giving out many details. One reason is that the ownership of the treasure is already being disputed by Spain, which owned the ship; Colombia, in whose waters it sits; and marine archaeologists, who found the ship. However it pans out, Colombia is preparing for the contents of the ship to be salvaged and has already committed to building a state-of-the-art conservation lab and museum to process the wreck, pointing out that there’s much more than treasure at stake.
“The San José discovery carries considerable cultural and historical significance for the Colombian government and people because of the ship’s treasure of cultural and historical artifacts and the clues they may provide about Europe’s economic, social, and political climate in the early 18th century,” WHOI states in the press release.
Per the Associated Press, the United Nations cultural agency Unesco has stepped into the ownership dispute, and it recently called on Colombia “not to commercially exploit the 300-year-old wreck.”
You might be surprised to learn that it was a stupid mistake that led to the sinking of the San José in the first place. Laura Geggel at LiveScience reports that every year, the treasure galleon laden with precious metals and gems from mines in the Potosi region of Peru would depart South America, bound for Spain and flanked by a fleet of warships.
In 1708, however, the escort squadron was delayed. Nevertheless, fleet commander admiral José Fernandez de Santillan decided to sail the San José for Europe, despite the ongoing War of the Spanish Succession.
Sure enough, the treasure ship met four English warships off the coast of Colombia. Its 62 highly decorated cannons weren’t enough to fend off the royal navy, and during a firefight the San José's powder magazine was hit. The ship, which had approximately 600 people aboard, went down—too quickly for the British to salvage the treasure.
As the rain clouds began to blow out to sea over the fortress of Castillo San Felipe del Morro, I looked out over the crowd of veterans and their families, knowing that not even rain could ruin this day for them. On April 27, 2016, a team of Smithsonian staff traveled to Puerto Rico with the most recently issued Congressional Gold Medal, which was presented to the U.S. Army 65th Infantry Regiment, nicknamed "The Borinqueneers." According to the Senate's website, the medal was given in recognition of the regiment's "pioneering military service, devotion to duty, and many acts of valor in the face of adversity." The Congressional Gold Medal is the "highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions," according to the site.
The first Congressional Medals were issued by the Continental Congress and struck in Paris during the American Revolution to "serve as an expression of national appreciation," according to the Congressional Research Service. Long before the power of the Internet, medals were small, portable objects on which images and messages could be struck and disseminated around the country and around the world. The medals were used to commemorate "distinguished contributions, dramatize the virtues of patriotism, and perpetuate the remembrance of great events." It should come as no surprise that the first recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal was General George Washington, the commander of the Continental Army. Washington received the medal for "wise and spirited conduct" in the Siege of Boston in June 1775.
The 65th Infantry Regiment is the recipient of the most recent medal in honor of its valor, determination, and bravery during the Korean War. The 65th is the first segregated Hispanic military unit in the history of the United States. The 65th Infantry Regiment garnered the nickname "The Borinqueneers" originating from the Taíno name of the island of Puerto Rico (Borinquen). Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1898 and in 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted statutory citizenship. The 65th Infantry Regiment participated in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. Interestingly, the first shots fired from the United States, signaling its involvement in World War I, were shot from the fort of "El Morro" San Juan, Puerto Rico at a German ship that sailed into in San Juan Bay on March 21, 1915. Since that time, over 100,000 Borinqueneers have served as American war veterans and "The Borinqueneers" hold another distinction as the first military unit with service during the Korean War to receive this award.
Since the American Revolution, Congressional Gold Medals have been awarded for more than just military service and valor. Recipients of these medals include humanitarians, explorers, actors, and even foreign recipients such as the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. Prestigious recipients of this medal include actor John Wayne, Walt Disney, boxer Joe Louis, Native American Code Talkers, and civil rights activist Rosa Parks. One of my favorites is the Japanese American Nisei Congressional Gold Medal, which is part of the museum's collection.
To date, over 300 Congressional Gold Medals have been awarded. My congratulations to the Borinqueneers, whose patriotism inspires so many of us.
Hillery York is a collections manager for the National Numismatic Collection.
What do you do after recovering sound from 130-year old recordings? For the museum, the next step was trying to understand that sound. In the exhibition "Hear My Voice": Alexander Graham Bell and the Origins of Recorded Sound," experimental historic sound recordings made by Bell and his Volta Laboratory team in the 1880s are matched with transcripts of the speakers' words. Matching the sound with the written word took a lot of work. Patrick Feaster, three-time Grammy nominee and specialist in history, culture, and preservation of early sound, helped with that effort. In an interview, Feaster discussed his involvement in the project, the process of rediscovering the content of historic sound recordings, and one of the New Media department's favorite phrases from the recordings.
What was your role in the Bell recordings project?
For a long time, I've been studying early sound recordings in the way that some people study early cinema. With this interest, I approached museum curator Carlene Stephens, and got a better understanding of the Bell recordings and the challenges of understanding them. I put in an application for a Lemelson Center Fellowship to study the recordings, and go through written materials about the experiments—some are at the museum and some are at the Library of Congress—and try to pull them together into a better picture of what Bell and his team were doing and how the recordings fit into it.
What can you tell me about the experience of deciphering early sound recordings?
I think a lot of people assume sound recording should be easy to understand. We're used to old writings being difficult to decipher and old artworks taking some work to figure out, but sound recordings that don't make sense tend to throw people. I've done a good bit of listening to early sound recordings and I've developed something of an ear for it. It’s certainly nothing magical; it's having a sense of what certain phonographic processes do to different speech sounds. A lot of it is understanding the culture and context well enough to know the range of possibilities: what things are people most likely to have said?
How do you research phrases you hear that were more common in spoken language than in written language?
When I listen, I try to pick out names of people or short phrases of recitations, just to lock onto four or five distinctive words in a row that I'm pretty sure about. I then search for that string of words online. Often I find digitized texts that contained those words. I see what words are before them, what words are after them, and hopefully that fits a part of the recording that I hadn't been able to figure out. When all of that falls into place, it's incredibly gratifying, like finding the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle.
Can you explain the phrase "How is that for high?" from the recordings?
Going through written Volta materials, I got a sense for the kinds of test phrases they liked to use. "How is that (or this, both occur) for high?" was one. I'd say it's something along the lines of "How do you like them apples?," "Well what do you think of that?," or "Amazing, isn't it?" It’s a little hard to find an equivalent, but it's a slightly boastful, slightly playful, remark of something being very clever, interesting, astonishing, or marvelous. I don't know that anyone from the period defined it clearly or unambiguously. It would be like trying to define Homer Simpson's "D'oh!" "How's that for high?" turns up all over the place in popular songs, newspaper stories, and apparently, it occurred to the folks who were making these recordings. Why they used it is an interesting question. Generally you might use it in a way such as, "Hey I just found a $50 bill on the sidewalk! How's that for high?" But in this case, it just pops up in the middle of the recording, among other phrases. So I guess just the fact that the words could be reproduced at all is one of these things you might want to say that about.
Deciphering the words and phrases in 130-year old sound recordings? How’s that for high?
Singers Zully Murillo de Caicedo (Cali) and Damaris Sayas Gomez (Mompox) share their unique vocal traditions during the “Women’s Voices in Music” workshop. During this session, Zully demonstrates the traditional song and dance “Quilélé.”
Filmed: David Barnes, and John Wetmore
Edited: Andrea Curran
Copy by E. T. Murray from the original manuscript [in Bancroft Library], October - November, 1878. Notes on pages 2-3 by A. S. Gatschet.
Copied by E.T. Murray in 1878 from the original made in 1821. It includes vocabularies of the following languages: Esselen, San Antonio (Salinan), San Miguel (Salinan), San Luis Obispo (Obispeno Chusmash), Santa Barbara (Barbareno Chumash), La Purisima (Purismeno Chusmash), Santa Inez (Inezeno Chumash), Nophrinthres of San Juan Bautista (a Yokuts dialect), Lathruunen (Yokuts), San Luis Rey (Uto-Aztecan), Karkin (Costanoan), Saclan (Miwok), Juichun (Costanoan), Huimen (Marin Miwok), and Suisen (a dialect of Patwin [Wintun]).
This detailed and highly readable paper discusses the impact of the Civil War on the Smithsonian Institution, which was founded in 1846 and led by its first Secretary, Joseph Henry, until his death in 1878. The author begins by placing the Smithsonian geographically, to show how physically vulnerable the building was during the war, and briefly discusses the Institution's origins and activities. She then goes on to describe some specific institutional casualties of the war, beginning with the Smithsonian's meteorology program. Many volunteer observers left their posts and in some cases, their equipment was destroyed. War-related business made telegraph lines unavailable for weather dispatches. The Smithsonian's finances also felt the impact of the war due to Congress's inability to make payments on time and the war's devaluation of currency. The Institution's publications program suffered from the high cost of paper and printing.
Despite his reservations about the war, Joseph Henry contributed to the Union effort. When approached by a balloonist for support, Henry recommended the balloonist provide reconnaissance for the Union Army, and a balloon corps was established. He also served on the three-member Permanent Commission of the Navy, which reviewed and reported on hundreds of proposals submitted to the Navy for warships, torpedoes, and other ordnance.
Henry also participated in Union Army signal tests from the Smithsonian Building's high tower, and was accused of treason for allegedly attempting to communicate with the Confederate Army. The author relates the details of this story and other reasons Henry was believed by some to be a southern sympathizer. A controversy ensued, for example, when Henry attempted to bar an abolitionist lecture series from taking place at the Smithsonian due to its political and religious content. In addition, the Institution lost several members of the Board of Regents because they were loyal to the Confederacy. Henry was also known to have been friends with Jefferson Davis, a former regent. Finally, he refused to fly a U.S. flag over the Smithsonian during the war, in part because he felt it would make the Institution a target.
Joseph Henry was also struck by personal tragedy during the Civil War years. His son became ill and died in 1862. His close friend and fellow leader of the American scientific community, Alexander Bache, suffered a breakdown from which he never recovered.
A major fire broke out at the Smithsonian in January 1865. Although much of the building and its contents were burned, Henry weathered this crisis with "surprising equanimity," says the author. The fire helped Henry make the case for eliminating the Smithsonian's lecture series (the lecture room had been destroyed) and for transferring the Smithsonian's library to the Library of Congress.
In preparation for this summer’s Folklife Festival, the Citified staff team met up with the program participants at the Anacostia Community Museum on Saturday, June 9, to explain some logistics of the upcoming event. From all the email and phone conversations that we have had prior to this meeting, it was clear that people had lots of questions about how the Folklife Festival operates and what they will be expected to do at it.
The participant pre-orientation was very successful in clearing up uncertainties and in clarifying what will actually happen when we’re out on the National Mall. We began the morning with a history of the Festival and an explanation of how a community is created among the program participants on the Mall over the event’s ten days. We then delved deeper into specifics about the types of sessions and settings within the Citified program and shared information about the other two Festival programs, Campus and Community and Creativity and Crisis.
Participants learned that the Citified program will be comprised of a series of stages and tents along the National Mall and that these venues host different types of performances. The "Panorama Room" is the main stage within the Citified program, and it hosts large musical and dance performances. The narrative stage of "Good Hope and Naylor Corner" hosts a variety of more intimate performances than what would be seen at the Panorama Room. These narrative sessions encourage audience participation as well as interaction among participants. Finally "Douglass Hall" is the craft tent. Artists will have a chance to do open air demonstrations of their work and engage volunteers who will also be able to make some pieces of their own.
We wrapped up the day with other Festival logistics that are crucial for all participant to know--everything from where to check in for lunch tickets to when information for stage "backlines" are due. This was an invaluable meeting for staff and participants, and everyone left with a greater understanding about what the Folklife Festival is trying to create and the part that they will play within it.
Kate Aebischer is an intern with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, where she is working on the Citified: Arts and Creativity East of the Anacostia River program. She is studying anthropology at The College of New Jersey.
For five decades, Art Wolfe has traveled the globe, camera in hand, documenting everything from bull elephants in Botswana to blue icebergs in Antarctica. In Earth Is My Witness: The Photography of Art Wolfe, his life's work is laid out across more than 400 glossy pages, offering readers a chance to immerse themselves in the threatened places, animals and cultures that he has dedicated his career to capturing. The book is both a testament to a prodigious career and a celebration of a man who has devoted his life to conservation photography.
Wolfe is no stranger to publishing: Since 1989, he has released at least one book a year, but he looks at Earth Is My Witness through a different lens. "I've done 80 books," Wolfe told Smithsonian.com, "and if anyone has entertained the idea of owning one of my books, I think this is the book that covers all the bases. I'm very proud of it." Wolfe travels nearly nine months out of the year, but recently spoke with us from his Seattle office about his lengthy career, avoiding "writer's block" and the places he most wants to see to next.
Smithsonian: How did you come to photography?
Wolfe: I was an art major at the University of Washington, but also during those college years I got into climbing. I was always a young naturalist—I always loved the natural world, and as I got older, I got more and more into hiking up into mountains and onto glaciers. During the week I’d go to school and learn about composition, and on the weekends, I got a little camera to document the climbs. My allegiances shifted during those college years. I absorbed everything I was learning in art school and applied it to my photos. By the time that I graduated, I saw myself as a photographer rather than a painter.
What did photography offer that was different from fine art?
It was much easier to create original compositions through the photographic process than to try to sit and stare at a blank piece of canvas or watercolor paper and create a meaningful composition. And I started seeing, fairly fast, that the camera could be a ticket to travel. I've always wanted to see what was beyond the ocean. Living on the West Coast you look out across the ocean toward Asia, and the camera became a passport into the unknown: to cultures, to countries that I wanted to see.
The book is a massive 400-page collection of photographs from your entire career thus far. How has your approach to photography and to capturing what you see changed or evolved? Can we see that in the book?
I think the greatest thing that art gave me was the insatiable curiosity to look at what I was doing but not to be completely satisfied and lulled into a sense of complacency. With people, there are classic portraits, there are candid moments, but there's also a subset of photos where I've completely created an abstract composition, where I've arranged up to 60 monks in a rosette below me in a monastery on the outskirts of Katmandu. A lot of people would condemn that and say that I'm altering reality, but wearing the hat of an artist ... I've given myself permission to do that.
The thing I was trying to avoid was something analogous to writer's block, where you run out of ideas. Fine art training and studying art taught me and encouraged me to evolve my work and never to get in a rut and shoot the same thing forty years later, and that has kept me excited and moving forward in a positive direction.
What do you find that inspires you most?
Capturing an image that may be a very private moment between you and a subject, but if it's successful, it can be seen and witnessed by millions of people around the globe. I think that's the undercurrent of almost everything I've done over the last 40 years. It's why sculptors sculpt and writers write and painters paint ... communicating a thought and idea that, if successful, reaches a broad audience. I wear the hat of a communicator. I photograph for my own enjoyment, but that in and of itself wouldn't do it. It's communicating, inspiring and encouraging people through the photographic medium that really puts the fire in my belly.
There's this idea, among people who study memory, that in order to feel as though you've lived a long life, it's not necessarily about living a lot of years but doing a lot of things, and having a lot of memories to fill those years. I look at your book, and I see all of the places you've been and all the memories you must have—is there one, or a few, in particular, that stands out to you?
I totally agree with that. My father passed away when he was 94 a couple of years ago. I would come home from yet another trip and he was living in an assisted care facility very close to where I lived, and I would naturally stop by before I even went home. And he was looking at me under the covers kind of worried, and I said "Are you worrying about me?" And he would nod, and I would say, "Listen, I’ve lived the life of 500 people. I've seen all of the charismatic animals I've ever wanted to see, from snow leopards to giant pandas to mountain gorillas to great white sharks. I've been all over the Earth, I've lived the life of 500 people; do not worry about me. Take care of yourself."
When I first looked at that book as a published book, with all the photos in it, it was humbling. I felt humbled by having been to the Karakoram Range and looking at K2, or being involved in the first Western expedition to Tibet, or being in the heart of the Amazon and witnessing tribes that hadn’t been exposed to the outside world. All of those—almost any one of those photos that I focus on in that book will have an etched memory in my brain. I cannot remember the names of people I taught two days ago, but show me an image and I can tell you a story about it with clarity.
Having done so much—having lived those 500 lives—what's next? Are there places you haven't been that you want to go?
I've got like five or six books in my mind, many of which I've been working on. The fear is running out of ideas, writer's block. Creative energy courses through my body. I'll always be working on something, I'll never be retired.
There are a lot of places I've never been: Egypt, Spain, places that people would maybe think would be the first places I would go. I'm holding those off until I get a little older. I want to go through the Middle East.