Robin Hanson returns to the podcast to discuss his new book, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, co-authored with Kevin Simler. As the subtitle suggests, the book looks at humans’ hidden motives. Robin argues that these hidden motives are much more prevalent than our conscious minds assume.

We are not conscious of the vast majority of the functions of our brains. This extends beyond the most basic things our brains do (such as commanding our hearts to beat every second or so) to many things we think of as higher-level cognitive tasks. Hanson and Simler argue that, if the brain were a corporation, the conscious mind wouldn’t be the CEO but the press secretary. Most of the reasons our conscious brains give for our actions are actually ex-post rationalizations for decisions that have been made unconsciously and for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious to us. As a press secretary, the conscious mind is better off not knowing if we are doing things for selfish reasons since that would make it more difficult to justify our actions to others.

Some very compelling evidence for this thesis comes from studies of people with split brains. People with severe epilepsy have sometimes been treated by severing the connections between the two halves of their brains. Researchers noticed that when one side of the brain was fed information that led to a particular action (e.g. an instruction from the researcher to “stand up”) the other side would construct a reason for the action (e.g. “I was thirsty and I got up to get a drink”). If the brain were truthfully answering these questions, it would say “I don’t know.” However, the split-brain patients confidently gave false answers apparently without realizing they were false. Hanson argues that neurotypical minds are doing the same thing: constructing justifications for our actions even if we aren’t really aware of our true underlying motives.

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