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Interesting popular science of the brain
on December 17, 2004
If you ever wondered why your brain and your computer's brain don't seem to be in synch, I can refer you to a hundred reasons why. Check out the book, "Mind Hacks: Tips and Tools for Using Your Brain".
This book sets out in layman's terms the enormous developments in the brain sciences in the last two decades, which have lead to an apparent debunking of the metaphor of the brain as a logical, linear, information processor and has elevated the role of biological, emotional, and psychological elements in the understanding of perception. The book asks the reader to explore the architecture of his own brain by sampling the exercises in perception in the book. The intent is to foster a new appreciation of the way the brain (now differently conceived) shapes the reality one perceives.
The impetus for this examination and reevaluation comes from the world of technology, especially because of those tools which test, measure, and scan the brain during experimental acts of perception and behavior. Tools such as electroencephalograms, positron emission tomography, and functional magnetic resonance imaging now allow scientists to see the biological bases of perception via real-time brain scans. Examples of such studies are contained in the various "hacks" in this book, as distinct illustrations of the brain's hidden (biologically-based) logic. The authors emphasize that perception is far from straightforward and the brain in some ways has a life of its own.
Author Tom Stafford is a cognitive neuroscientist. The other primary co-author, Matt Webb, is an engineer and designer. Many of the "hacks" have been contributed by a large handful of others, mostly from the world of natural science research. Each hack is a probe, so to speak, into the works of the brain in its many aspects of perception - seeing, hearing, touch, attention, reasoning, memory, and more. Most of these hacks are structured into a template - introductory material on the latest science in that topic area, real-life illustrations of the topic, and suggestions for the reader to experiment with his own brain facilities. For example, have you ever thought why you can't normally tickle yourself? Hack #65 explains why and provides a work around. Many of the hacks are illustrated with graphics and others indicate links to websites where one can find text, graphics, video, and sound illustrations. Although these links are quite helpful and illuminating, it can be annoying to have to drop the book, log-on to a computer, and pull up a website before going back to the book to complete that segment.
This book is popular science about significant research and technology advances in the brain sciences. It will appeal to the many readers who like to keep up on important science matters without having to study for a college graduate program. The best chapters are those on Reasoning (Chapter 7) and Togetherness (Chapter 8) which include evidence puncturing the supposed rationality of human activities. Hack #70, for example, shows how the mere arrangement of a list can influence people's selection choices and why marking down a unit price from $20.00 to $19.99 is so significant. Hack #73 discusses the placebo effect and #75 delves lightly into Gestalt phenomenology.
The subject material seems a bit far afield for the publisher, O'Reilly Media, Inc., which has carved out a niche as a purveyor of computer-related books, many of which cover esoteric subjects. This volume of popular science seems to have been shoehorned into the structure of the popular O'Reilly "Hacks" series, but doesn't quite fit the template of compiling relatively separate clever solutions to discrete computer software problems. Rather than discrete and relatively independent segments, many of the individual hacks here really are just captions or headings separating subject matter.