The trouble with autopilot: The separation between conscious and subconscious

In this segment, Shankar Vendantam, author of “The Hidden Brain” discusses the role the human subconscious plays in cultural stereotypes. Vendantam suggests that negative associations with certain races, genders and sexual preferences begin when we are very young.  Not surprisingly, this is thought to be a result of parenting or upbringing, not genetic predisposition.

Our subconscious makes snap judgements about our surroundings constantly. These decisions are based upon repetition, at our most basal learning level.  Because the subconscious is our “dumb” brain, repetition is associated with normativity, without the use of logic, empathy or reason. These instincts or reflexes are what keep us alive, but are also the root of cultural categorization.

The author acknowledges that it is human nature to make judgements about other people with different backgrounds, especially under high pressure. Because these judgements are often made subconsciously, people form unfair or uninformed biases without even knowing they’re doing so.

So how can we correct a behavior we aren’t even aware of?  Shankar Vendantam suggests speaking to children directly, while they are still early in their development. If we unpack common associations children have in relation to race, gender and sexual preference, we can understand why stereotypical categorizations are formed. If we better understand the associations of children’s learning, we can better shape these unconscious associations to mitigate prejudice in their lives.

We rely on our subconscious, we need it to stay alive.  We must still be mindful of giving it too much power. The author states the propagation of prejudice is like the autopilot function flying the plane without the pilot being aware of it.  I have great hope for this and future generations. In a decade, we have made greater strides towards universal equality than our predecessors made in the last century.  Therefor, it is our responsibility as conscious, deliberate, logical creatures to “take back the controls” from our hidden brain, and tackle damaging prejudices through direct conversation.

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