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240 of 244 people found the following review helpful
on May 17, 2012
This is another book in the increasingly popular genre of pop cognitive psychology. These books usually take the following approach:
1) Author reads tons of studies revealing brain quirks, failures, and surprising behavior.
2) Author attempts to tie some of these into related themes (Think Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink").
3) Author discusses the "lessons learned" from these studies.
"What Makes Your Brain Happy" is no exception. The title refers to the brains tendency to fall into common, comfortable behavior patterns, occasionally to our detriment. Subjects like confirmation bias, framing, and mental heuristics and all discussed via various studies, anecdotes, and thought experiments. He also wades into territory common to many books on the subject of happiness including habituation, buyer's remorse, narcissism, and loneliness. To fans of cognitive psych and behavioral economics, most of this material will be familiar. To the uninitiated, this is a decent introduction.

DiSalvo positions this book as a scientific alternative to the self-help genre which he regards as frequently built on false promises. He takes a couple jabs at the self-help industry early on (you're not suddenly seeing more Chanel handbags because the cosmos are responding to your "dream board" but rather because you've keyed yourself into looking for them) but this book is really about examining studies and trying to wring out some lessons that we can apply to our own life.

Does he succeed? Yes and no. At the end of the book he distills the material covered into 50 "lessons" to apply to our own lives. They range from reasonable and actionable (let others know about your goals to enhance motivation, make goals tangible and measurable) to the vague and difficult to implement (don't always trust common sense, know when to engage heuristic override) to the simply observational (it's difficult to tell what we'd do in an emotionally charged and time constrained situation). DiSalvo acknowledges that many brain failures are due to "bad wiring" which makes altering our behavior notoriously difficult. He broadly promotes metacognition, that is, thinking about our own thinking, as a means of identifying bias and irrational behavior. I definitely agree and think reading books of this type helps.

My main complaint is that the book is extremely broad and scattershot. It starts off as a nice breezy read, full of interesting, illustrative anecdotes, but it starts to drag toward the middle, with study after study and no common thread. It started to feel like reading 100 back to back magazine articles rather than a cohesive whole. The lessons may be valid, but 50 is so overwhelming that none of them are really "driven home". After closing this book I didn't feel immediately compelled to implement any changes in my life or way of thinking (and not for lack of openness).

I debated as to whether to give this 3 or 4 stars. It's not a bad book, but I didn't think it did anything well enough to warrant a higher rating, especially when there are so many other good books like Kahneman's "Thinking Fast and Slow" out there.
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261 of 276 people found the following review helpful
I've read many books on the topic of cognitive bias and this rates one of the best for the general reader. I'm endlessly fascinated by the topic and can't seem to stop reading these books even though there isn't a lot new in most of them. They all keep saying the same thing and I'm getting a little tired of it.

So I was quite surprised when this one seemed a little different. It does an excellent job at explaining the issues and it is one of the few books in this area that devotes a reasonable amount of space to what you can actually do to avoid the problems. The author devotes one whole chapter at the end to 50 techniques to help you avoid your brain faults and he scatters other advice through most of the rest of the book.

The book is organized well, it is very clear in its explanation, and it reads easily and quickly. It kept my attention throughout. There is an excellent resources section at the end of the book which describes a large number of related books and blogs. That resource list alone is probably worth the price of the book.

To top it off this book has Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature that let's you preview before you buy. Well done and highly recommended.
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119 of 123 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2012
Why should you buy this book? If you are stubborn it will help explain why you are stubborn. It also provides a bulletproof excuse for being stubborn. "It's not me that's stubborn it's my brain that's stubborn." Di Salvo reminds us brain processes are not only functional allies in the daily survival campaign but also stealthy saboteurs.

Whether we hate statistics or not, Di Salvo elaborates, our brains lavish in probability by frantically calculating likely outcomes, often using inappropriate formulas and incomplete data, all in the name of efficiency to quickly to bask in reduced uncertainty. Job done; brain is happy. Oops, what if that rascal questing for speedy resolution and decisional-euphoria missed some important stuff? Well, then maybe you'll die, or worse yet, later discover your spouse really does hate your best friend coming over every Thursday night.

Structurally, as other reviewers note, the book falls prey to the strong start, loosely organized middle, strong finish pattern. This is common in non-fiction books written by excellent essayists and often traceable to editor-intervention like--we need 80 more pages! Can you go over your notes? The middle section isn't totally useless because a variety of other relevant topics such as habituation, the illusion of control, and memory games are covered. Plus there's a solid reference section (Notes) and functional index, not to mention two, yep two, added chapters ("Special Sections"). One contains additional readings, the other summaries of the author's fave research studies. OK, some of it really is padding but at least its relevant padding.

Some effort is made to position the book in a niche distant from other likely self-help-shelf neighbors. But, you can help yourself by reading this book. Actionable suggestions for combating the brain's less desirable operational modes are presented. Di Salvo just refers to these tips as "takeaways," "knowledge clues," or "implications." Fifty such summary prescriptions are filled in the "Mind the Gap" chapter. The book's real differentiating dimension is the focus on underlying science.

Much of the foundation material is simply not that new but recent research is exceptionally well summarized and effectively made palatable. Roots of the main premise, the brain likes consistency and fights bloody hard to achieve it, are grounded in decades-old research sporting umbrella terms such as "cognitive consistency." It takes a good writer to demystify such material and Di Salvo is a good researcher/writer and an apt storyteller too, so it's unlikely you'll be bored.

Do you really want to plow through several 700-page graduate-level textbooks and back issues of twenty different academic journals to gain a foothold on this material? I agree with your brain on that score, the likely answer is...No. So, suffer the relatively minor shortcomings and buy this book. If, after reading it, you quickly conclude you've wasted $12 then blame your brain. Ironically, that might make it happy. Just don't go entropic! As Di Salvo summarizes in the last chapter, "Living is, after all, is messy business, and more often than not, it is ambiguity rather than clarity filling our mind-space."
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97 of 102 people found the following review helpful
on January 7, 2012
With one eye on neuroscience and the other on cognitive psychology, David DiSalvo reveals what's "behind the curtain" when it comes to common self-defeating human behaviors. For example, why, if you think you've "blown your diet" by exceeding the calorie limit you set for the day, most likely you'll keep going until you blow through it all the way, thinking "oh what the hell." It turns out what the hell is a pre-wired response. As is overconfidence about our ability to restrain ourselves in the first place, thus the reason why "moderation" is tougher than plain old abstinence. There's tons of stuff like these in this new book, written in an engaging yet erudite style anyone can grasp. DiSalvo shuns the self help label and calls his book "Science help" ...nonetheless he adds a bit of "how to" at the end of every chapter. Read it for the science and DiSalvo's very solid and evidence-based advice.
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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2012
An eye opening read that will have you nodding your head in agreement in every page, thinking, yes, I do that! This book helps us to understand why we won't admit when we're wrong, or why we see patterns in random events. I enjoyed this book but when I lent it to a friend who didn't have a science background, she told me she had to look up too many words. Di Salvo does have quite an extensive vocabulary but, as someone with an interest in popular science, I found the book both approachable and very readable.
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29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on February 13, 2012
As someone with no formal background in science or psychology, I found the prospect of reading a book about cognitive neuroscience as daunting as I would a paper on quantum physics. While I love reading about science, it's easy for me to get lost in he jargon. With David DiSalvo's new book, it turns out I had nothing to worry about. Like my favorite science writer, Carl Sagan, he manages to take complex ideas and convert them to layman's terms, illustrating each concept with a story or anecdote that presents them in a manner that anyone can understand. And, not only is it informative and enlightening - it is also great fun. A gifted wordsmith, Mr. DiSalvo takes us on a raucous, witty journey around the world, from the depths of the ocean to the markets of the Far East, searching for the reasons why humans don't always do what's in our own best interests. I would highly recommend this book to anyone wants to learn what's going on inside the head without the information going over it.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on January 19, 2012
While this book's main focus is the presentation of data from clinical studies which shed light on what drives human behavior in many common situations, the tone of the book is what makes it such a great read. The author peppers each topic with well-written and fun real-world examples to illustrate the implications of the research he presents. Those unfamiliar with "science-speak" need not worry- you will not be intimidated or lost because DiSalvo serves as an excellent "tour guide" through the behavior medicine literature which he explores. Because each chapter stands on its own content-wise, the book is a good choice for reading in "chunks" as it does not need to be read cover-to-cover over a short time period to make sense. It is clear that DiSalvo is a true fan of his subject matter and his enthusiasm for understanding what makes our brains tick comes through in his writing and is contagious. A pleasure to read.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on February 20, 2012
DiSalvo argues that many books show examples of cognitive biases, which are fun to read. But he goes further to say that it is not enough to "know" what goes wrong with our decision processes; one should also be able to apply such knowledge in practical terms. I think the hardest part of such application is that it implies the ability to question long-held beliefs. Because our brains are hardwired to stick with decisions even in face of contrary evidence: we are just "certain" that "we are right". Well... maybe it's time to reconsider.
As Gloria Steinen said; "The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off"!
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2012
The most extraordinary thing about this book is the way it takes one of the most complex topics imaginable -- the inner workings of the human brain -- and makes learning about it completely accessible for the average reader. This book is a fantastic tool for recognizing your own brain's biases and desires, but it is also an excellent resource for anyone who leads others. From business leaders to classroom teachers, this book will help you to understand why others do what they do and how you can best respond to it. Highly recommended!
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on January 25, 2012
Absolutely fascinating book about the brain (and its neurons) and how it affects our personalities and our thinking. It tells us so many uselful things that I can't explain them all. Here are a couple.

In a political discussion, the one side will maintain adamantly their opinion is the correct one, yet the other side will maintain just as vigorously that their side is correct. The conversation can get quite heated. Why is this so? Sometimes the conversation can get so heated that neither side is listening rationally to the other side. One side could give logical, reasonable evidence that his/her side is correct, yet the other side is so blinded by the need to be right, that it isn't able to absorb the logical, reasonable evidence in front of them. THERE ARE BIOLOGICAL, CEREBRAL REASONS FOR THIS! The author of the book explains why, physically, the brain wants to be right at all costs.

Our brains (and personalities) don't like change. Again, there are biological, cerebral reasons for this. The book explains how and why our brains don't like change (and aren't "happy"). For example, Copernicus said the earth revolved around the sun. The people at that time didn't like this change. They thought the sun revolved around the earth, and it "hurt" their brains to think otherwise. The author explains how sometimes we must do things that "hurt" our brains, making them unhappy, for the overall good. Another example occured with the author's wife. She wanted to skydive. Her brain didn't want her to. In fact, every physical signal she received from her body and brain said, "No, don't do it." Yet, she overcame the need to keep her brain happy, and jumped out of a plane. I'm sure she feels that in this case, it was good to overcome what made her brain happy and do something that made her brain unhappy at the time.

I recommend this book to anybody who finds the workings of the brain interesting.
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