Skip to main content

A Mind of Its Own – Cordelia Fine *****

It might seem an obvious truism that our brains have minds of their own – isn’t that what brains do, have minds? – but Cordelia Fine has an entirely different intention here. What her excellent little book reveals in embarrassing detail is just how much our brains get away with. Brains are great at doing things that our conscious minds either aren’t aware of, or wish didn’t happen.
Along the way we are introduced to the vain brain, the emotional brain, the pigheaded brain, the secretive brain and the bigoted brain. Each section picks a particular way that our brains can operate effectively separate from our conscious will – situations where the brain is effectively going its own sweet way, whatever you think is happening, something that would have Mr Spock turning in his Vulcan grave. All these behaviours are illustrated with psychological experiments, often involving tricking the subjects – as Fine says there are two morals to be drawn. “One, never trust a social psychologist. Two, never trust your brain.”
To see the sort of behaviour that emerges, lets take the first section, the vain brain. Here Fine explores just how the brain takes Monty Python’s advice and always looks on the bright side of life. Our brains are consistently good at playing up the positives and playing down the negatives. For example, pretty well everyone is sure that they are a better than average driver (or would be if they had a licence) – yet simple statistics makes it obvious that nearly half the population has to be worse than average. As Fine points out, we have a term for people whose brains aren’t very good at making things seem better than they really are. They’re clinically depressed.
What a lot of A Mind of Its Own’s conclusions come down to is that our brains are superbly good at editing. They have to be. Just take the simple act of seeing – our eye/brain combo doesn’t work like a video camera. Instead the brain sorts out the input from the eyes how it expects things to be. Otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see fluid motion in moving pictures, for instance (forget all that stuff someone told you about persistence of vision – it’s rubbish). However, as Fine shows us, this editing, while essential, can also lead the brain to do things we really don’t want it to do, deceiving us about ourselves and the world around us.
It’s probable that Fine’s very engaging and chatty style, bringing in her young children, her husband’s habits of keeping control of the pens in the house and other details, will delight many readers, though it won’t appeal to absolutely everyone. But if you like a book that communicates like a person, Fine has got it just right. Although she is an academic, she writes like a human being (a surprisingly rare combination – the stereotype (we meet stereotypes in “the bigoted brain”) is all too often true). All in all this short and enjoyable book is a must for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of what their brain gets up to when they aren’t watching it. First class.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…