Media / Book Review

The Hidden Brain Podcast: Open-Minded Skepticism

Summary: A commentary on the Hidden Brain podcast episode, “Secret Friends: Tapping Into the Power of Imagination.” This episode is a smart, open-minded and respectful report about people working with their minds and imagination in ways that help them “experience the invisible as real.”

Listening to podcasts has become one of my favorite ways to explore new ideas. I especially enjoy some of the more science-y podcasts, like Radio Lab, Invisibilia, and Hidden Brain.

However, I have also learned to be cautious with any episodes about the psychological or spiritual, including many topics about the brain. The reporting on these often falls squarely on the side of materialist science, which I (and many other thoughtful people) find extremely limiting (to say the least), and operating much more like religious dogma than science. An example of the limits of materialist science is this early Radio Lab episode about dreams – whose conclusions seem to reduce dreams to no more than indigestion.

At its worst, the reporting is outright disrespectful of the people they interview and the researchers they reference. I had to turn off this Invisibilia podcast about a child’s unusual memories because I found the treatment of the interview subjects made me feel like I was witnessing a public gaslighting. The episode is described as finding out “what the case is really about.” However, in my listen, what we discover instead is that the interviewer is so uncomfortable with the topic, she chooses to dismiss the subject’s experiences rather than take them seriously.

The episode notes for the Hidden Brain episode, Secret Friends: Tapping Into the Power of Imagination” read:

Where is the line between what is real and what is imaginary? It seems like an easy question to answer: if you can see it, hear it, or touch it, then it’s real, right? But what if this way of thinking is limiting one of the greatest gifts of the mind? This week, we meet people who experience the invisible as real, and learn how they hone their imaginations to see the world with new eyes.

~ Episode Notes from the Secret Friends episode of the Hidden Brain podcast

Even though those words remind me of one of my early blog posts, I pressed play with trepidation, expecting the materialist bait and switch to pop up at any moment. Instead, Hidden Brain host Shankar Vedantam, does a brilliant job staying rooted in science while also including areas of human experience that are both real and subjective.

There’s a lengthy interview with anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann. Luhrmann describes her research with people who believe in magic, and another with evangelical Christians and the use of imaginative prayer. Mainstream science and media would not typically treat either of these groups with respect. Yet to my surprise, both Vedantam and Luhrmann treat these subjects with what I consider to be the best orientation of science: an open-minded skepticism that leads to new discoveries and insights.

Vedantam’s closing words are lovely:

The human capacity for imagination is one of the greatest gifts of the brain. Our imaginings can certainly lead us astray, cause us to see things we wish to see instead of seeing reality for what it is. Those concerns are well founded, but they should not lead to a narrow absolutism. Sometimes, amazing things can happen when we allow ourselves to listen to our “secret friends.”

~ Shankar Vedantam

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