A Mind of its Own – Cordelia Fine

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.


We Need to Talk About Kevin

I’ll keep this straightforward.

The Book

Book is good. Story: fictional school shooting in America. Seven students, a cafeteria worker and an English teacher murdered. Two years after the event, the murderer’s mother tries to come to terms with her son’s deed by writing a series of letters to her absent husband.

Eva forces herself to be honest about her ambivalence and self-doubt. She questions her innate ability to be a mother. She recounts the unpleasant experience of raising a child who was callous from birth. How much of what Kevin became was biological, and how much of it was her doing? Can a mother be blamed?

This is the story of a family, and its dissolution. I was hooked from the start. The letter-style narrative works wonderfully. Eva’s voice is eloquent and intelligent. Yet the limitation of seeing only through her eyes charges the unfolding events with possible layers of meaning.

Lionel Shriver is excellent with words. I grew deeply envious of her ability to select the opportune word at the opportune time. She was fancy, but appropriately so. She was wordy when it fit and sparse when needed. Her vocabulary is fearsome, but her timing impeccable. She also has a gift for capturing nuance and personal interaction in a way that is refreshing and realistic.

We Need to Talk About Kevin raises a whole lot of questions, obviously, and doesn’t force any answers down your throat. I found the novel overwhelmingly touching, disturbing and marvellous.


NB. If the psychology of the story fascinates you, look up “callous-unemotional” as a childhood diagnosis. It seems to be an emerging topic of discussion.

The Movie

I had high hopes, but frankly the movie disappointed me. Perhaps because the book was so rich, the movie seemed fragmented and inadequate. Tilda Swinton was good as Eva, but had little emotional variation. John C. Reilly’s acting felt forced to me. The dialogue was so sparse that at times, it came off awkward. The cinematography was slow, artsy, spaced with plenty of pauses and close-ups of objects in the scene. I feel that they could have compressed some of those artsy bits and added more substance to the film. The story is told in alternating flashbacks and present-day, but isn’t too difficult to follow.

Casting for Kevin and Celia was altogether good, although Kevin was a little overplayed. Ezra Miller’s Kevin really relished all the stuff he did, whereas in the book he seemed subtler, colder and more restrained. In the end, the denouement felt somewhat rushed. But I’m sure those who watched the movie before reading the book would disagree.