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:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Until the End of Time: Brian Greene ***

Things start well with this latest title from Brian Greene: after a bit of introductory woffle we get into an interesting introduction to entropy. As always with Greene's writing, this is readable, chatty and full of little side facts and stories. Unfortunately, for me, the book then suffers something of an increase in entropy itself as on the whole it then veers more into philosophy and the soft sciences than Greene's usual physics and cosmology.

So, we get chapters on consciousness, language, belief and religion, instinct and creativity, duration and impermanence, the ends of time and, most cringe-making as a title, 'the nobility of being'. Unlike the dazzling scientific presentation I expect, this mostly comes across as fairly shallow amateur philosophising.

Of course it's perfectly possible to write good science books on, say, consciousness or language - but though Greene touches on the science, there far too much that's more hand-waving. And good though he i…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…