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 AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…