The Universe Inside Your Mind


400 years ago, we began to examine the universe and challenge our beliefs about our place within it. Are investigations of the universe inside our minds any different?


[Voice and music over a black screen]

MAHZARIN BANAJI: There are few thrills that can compete with the thrill of scientific discovery.

[Animated image of the moon in the night sky]

My absolute favorite story about important moments in science, even today, is the story of the telescope and the person who first wielded it with earth-shattering effect, Galileo.

[A hand-draw map of Europe appears, and an arrow traces the path from the Netherlands to Italy]

Galileo didn’t even invent the telescope. He heard about it, as news from the Netherlands traveled to Italy.

[A telescope appears, one piece at a time]

He put his own gizmo together, increased its magnification, and oh my!

[We look through the lens of the telescope and see a flat orange circle representing the sun. Details of the sun’s surface (sunspots, etc.) start to fade in.]

The perfect Aristotelian sun suddenly had blotches on it.

[The view through the telescope pans to a flat grayish-white circle representing the moon. Details of craters fade in.]

Our moon had craters,

[The view through the telescope pans to Jupiter and its moons moving in orbit]

and Jupiter’s moons danced around that planet in systematic ways.

[The view through the telescope changes to Earth]

All this pointed, of course, in one difficult direction:

[Earth shrinks as our view “zooms out” to show Mars, Earth, Venus, and Mercury orbiting the Sun]

We were not the center of the universe.  Copernicus was right!

Of course, these discoveries didn’t line up with what ordinary people thought.

[We see the telescope again]

But Galileo had an instrument. You can imagine the defiant Galileo thinking,

[We look through the lens of the telescope again. A small white circle representing the moon passes into view, becoming larger and full of crater detail]

“I’ll shove their faces into those lenses and once they see, they will have to believe.”

Four hundred years later, we’re at a new frontier.

[We see an animated image of a galaxy. A silhouette of a human head in profile fades in overtop it, so that the galaxy appears to be inside the head]

Instead of only looking outward to the farthest reaches of the universe, we’re also looking inside the mind.

[More and more “stars” appear inside the silhouette head, in the shape of a brain]

Your brain and mine has more individual cells – neurons – in it than all the stars in our galaxy.

[We zoom in closer to a group of stars, and neuron-like connections form between them]

And guess what!  The universe inside our heads seems to be just as fascinating and perplexing – sometimes just as frightening as those worlds so far away must have seemed in 1610.

Mind scientists like myself, we too have our instruments.

[The stars fade into a hand-drawn image of a computer. A woman appears, sitting at the computer, and scribbled text appears on the screen]

Sometimes they are just clever little questions that can be posed to people.

[Different scribbled text appears on the computer screen in yellow and red. The woman presses a key on the keyboard]

Sometimes we observe how quickly they make their decisions.

[We zoom into the woman’s head, and the screen goes white]

Sometimes we directly measure brain activity.  These are our telescopes.

[Mahzarin Banaji herself appears onscreen, seated and speaking into the camera.]

I’m Mahzarin Banaji.  I’m a professor of experimental psychology at Harvard University.  For the past 35 years I’ve had the great fortune of studying two of the most complex systems we know of: the human mind, and the social world in which the human mind does its work.  I study how we think about other people and ourselves, how decisions we make are influenced by things that we have no clue about.

[An animation is shown, traveling up the side of a tall building (William James Hall, the home of the Harvard University Department of Psychology) and toward the upper-floor windows. The image fades to students inside seated at computers]

Small discoveries from my own lab have shown us something interesting:  – that we may not always be the objective, rational, good people that we think we are.

[The image fades rapidly from indigenous dwellings to a medieval town to a large city]

And that’s not because we are bad people, but rather because our minds are built to do the job of surviving in a world that looked nothing like the one that we confront today.

[Four rectangles appear, each with a thumbnail image from an Outsmarting Implicit Bias module]

Outsmarting Human Minds is a project designed to bring you the best information science allows us at this time to understand and hopefully outsmart our minds.

[An animated image pans across people with a diverse range of professions and identities]

Whether you’re a parent, an educator, somebody in the world of healthcare, business, law, law enforcement…

[Mahzarin Banaji speaks into the camera again]

…whatever you happen to do, your thoughts and feelings about yourself and the others around you are significant determinants of your life and your work.

My hope is a simple one.  That with learning about the mind will come an appreciation of how it got built over the course of evolution, how it was influenced by culture; how it serves us well and fails us, and how we can outsmart it to become the decision makers that we want to be.

[The image fades to white and the OIB logo appears]


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Extra materials if you want to learn more


Richard Panek’s Seeing and Believing is the definitive guide to the revolution brought by the telescope.

Those interested in pointing the telescope inside the mind: pick up Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow or Elliot Aronson’s The Social Animal.


The Universe Inside was created and developed by Mahzarin Banaji and Olivia Kang with funding from PwC and Harvard University.

Narration by Mahzarin Banaji

Artwork by Olivia Kang

Camera & Editing by Evan Younger

Music by Big Score Audio and Tiny Music via Premium Beat