The Hidden Brain
A crowd watches passively as a man
brutally beats a woman on a Detroit
bridge. An investor selects a company
solely on the basis of an easy-to-read
ticker symbol. A worker in a burning building wastes precious seconds
asking others whether to evacuate.
The decisions these real-life people
made may sound cruel or stupid, but
to be fair, Vedantam says, they weren’t
thinking consciously. They were thinking with their hidden brains.
“The hidden brain” is a shorthand
term that Vedantam, a science journalist for The Washington Post, has coined
to help readers grasp what is by definition obscure: the unconscious. This
collection of cognitive and emotional
processes does much of the brain’s routine work, he says.
Vedantam interweaves anecdotes
and research descriptions to explain
how the hidden brain makes these
unconscious evaluations, which
include mental shortcuts that may
have helped human ancestors make
Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth
Randi Hutter Epstein
The “me” in the title of Epstein’s book
refers not only to the baby, but also to
any mother who might want out of the
medical way of giving birth prevalent in
Western culture today.
After saying that the book’s guidance
“should pique your curiosity to think
about the medical maze in a different
sort of way,” Epstein describes child-
birth from the 1600s
to the present, ulti-
mately tackling how
influences the way
women conceive and
Epstein, a medi-
cal journalist who
is also trained as a physician, offers
revealing and sometimes disturb-
ing insight into the medicalization of
childbirth: the suffering female slaves
quick decisions. Early chapters illustrate small ways the hidden brain tugs
at behavior, and later sections address
larger social and political issues, from
racial bias to suicide bombings and
groupthink during disasters.
The book’s basic premise, that the
unconscious steers decision making, is
supported by research dating back at
least to Freud. But
social issues such
as racial bias, the
author can rely heav-
ily on anecdotes or
of research at face
value if they support his premise.
Yet even when Vedantam makes
mental leaps in his interpretations,
his compelling narrative pulls readers
along and raises important questions.
And in the end, this exploration is
likely to leave readers a bit more mind-
ful of what could be influencing their
own behavior. — Erika Engelhaupt
Spiegel & Grau, 2010, 270 p., $26.
endured in the 1800s as unwitting
test subjects for early gynecological
devices; the business maneuvering
and resulting financial success by
the inventors of the forceps; and the
financial posturing required before
ultrasound replaced harmful X-rays in
viewing fetuses during prenatal care.
Such stories certainly need to be told.
Lessening the power of Epstein’s oth-
erwise vivid narrative and authoritative
tone are hints of opinions and judg-
ments that are never clearly stated. In
describing “freebirthers” — women who
choose to give birth at home without a
doctor or midwife — Epstein alludes to
her personal view: “Seeing the videos
and talking to women who have gone
the unassisted route is so inspiring.”
But these missteps mar only slightly
an otherwise fascinating and powerful
recounting of conception and childbirth.
— Kristina Bartlett Brody
Isaac Newton on
Certainty and Method
A science historian
philosophy of mathematics. MIT Press,
2009, 422 p., $55.
The Perfect Swarm:
The Science of
often stem from an
accumulation of simple patterns.
Basic Books, 2009, 260 p., $22.95.
Perfect Rigor: A
Genius and the Mathe-
of the Century
How a mathematician
solved a seemingly
unsolvable problem and turned down
the million-dollar prize. Houghton
Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, 242 p., $26.
A Bird-Finding Guide
to Costa Rica
The country with the
of preserved land in
the world has many
birding opportunities, described here
by location. Cornell University Press,
2009, 365 p., $29.95.
The Tree Rings’ Tale:
Young adults can learn
how scientists use
tree rings to document
climate change. University of New
Mexico Press, 2009, 91 p., $21.95.
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