Tuesday, 21 March 2006

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

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