Books about the brain tickle me. They fascinate me. They’re like thrillers about myself, with twists on how I trick myself and how I don’t actually think the way I think that I think. Are you confused yet?
Cordelia Fine, apart from having a name like something out of a Neil Gaiman children’s book, is cool because she lives in Melbourne, Australia. Hey, maybe we passed each other in the street. How awesome. She’s an academic psychologist who’s studied at Oxford, Cambridge and University College of London. Good grief, lady…now why did you come to Melbourne again?
Maybe for the coffee and suburban backyards :)
A Mind of Its Own is an intriguing little book about how our brains deceive us. Each chapter explains a different way in which we delude ourselves into thinking that we’re more moral, clever, rational, special and in control than our neighbours and friends. (Can you hear your own brain now? “Surely not! I can see some of my acquaintances falling prey to that flaw, but never me! I’m too sensible for that!”)
Fine tells it in an approachable, conversational style. She talks through battery after battery of psychological experiments, going as far back as the infamous Milgram obedience tests first conducted in 1961. (This disturbing test, conducted after WWII, was designed to explore if ordinary American citizens would perform horrible acts of torture when under pressure from an authority figure. The results are astonishing and have been repeated consistently in multiple subsequent experiments.)
The content is fascinating. Within the first chapter, I was informed that my brain is vain, conniving and falsely optimistic about my abilities and chances for future success. And yet, even when we are told that we delude ourselves, we still can’t help but continue in the same manner. Fine explains that we are wired this way for our own sake–otherwise, would we bother to get up in the morning? Would life be endurable? There are a subset of people who view the world more realistically, she says. These people are clinically depressed.
After getting off to such a cheery start, the rest of the book doesn’t disappoint. It’s about 200 pages, a relatively cruisey read, and Fine writes in eloquent, engaging language. She uses very little technical jargon, and I felt this was almost to her detriment–the personal anecdotes and obvious attempts to enlarge her vocabulary with awkward twists of phrasing devalued the experience somewhat in my eyes. It would have been better if she stuck to simple, straightforward, succinct language.
All in all, Fine really knows her stuff and backs it up with the evidence (ie. 30 pages of references). It’s a very accessible glimpse into the world of neuropsychology and a great read even for those who don’t have any interest in the neurosciences.
And that’s not the last we’ve heard from her. Cordelia’s second book, Delusions of Gender, came out in 2010. It sounds even more intriguing. In it, she postulates that male and female brains do not possess an innate biological difference, but that the perceived differences are shaped by society and culture. To me, that sounds near impossible. But I guess I’ll have to read the book and find out.