95 of 101 people found the following review helpful
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Cordelia Fine's "A Mind of its Own" reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink"--it is filled with surprising and counterintuitive observations about how the brain really works. Fine's thesis is that our brains do a fine job of deluding us--making us think that we are smart, attractive, above average, considerate, unbiased and blissfully free of the shortcomings and moral defects that plague other people. It's a good thing, too--as Fine points out in one striking paragraph, "there is a category of people who get unusually close to the truth about themselves and the world. . . . They are the clinically depressed." Ignorance really is bliss!
With a witty style, Fine reviews the psychological experiments that show that our moods and judgments can be dramatically influenced by external factors like beautiful weather or by what someone just said or did to us. Our brains make up lots of excuses after the fact to explain what we did and why, or to shift blame to others, all in an effort to make it seem that we are good people who are in control of our lives. We end up being bigoted, pigheaded, immoral and emotional, even when we think we are none of those things. On the whole, it's not a very flattering picture, although Fine does point to some encouraging studies suggesting that some of the brain's worst excesses (e.g., bigotry) can be curbed by careful attention to our thoughts--of course, in other contexts (such as trying to fall asleep), focusing on our thoughts can make things worse!
This book is full of lots of "aha!" moments, but it's not a self-help guide. The message sometimes seems to be "you're not really in control here--try to enjoy the ride!"
That said, I draw one very important conclusion from this entertaining book: avoid spending time with scientists who are conducting psychology experiments. These people are apparently always testing things other than what they pretend to be testing, and your brain will invariably come out of the experiment looking rather shoddy and ill-mannered. ("Not my brain!" you may protest, in which case you definitely need to read Chapter 1 of Fine's book.)
43 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on August 31, 2007
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According to the story, in a survey taken several years ago, all incoming freshman at MIT were asked if they expected to graduate in the top half of their class. Ninety-seven percent responded that they did.
And another piece of research in 1989 compared mathematical competence in students in eight different countries. Korean students ranked the highest in mathematical skills, while those in the United States had the lowest rating. Yet the American students had the highest overall opinion of their ability, while the Koreans who had the best results had the lowest opinion of how they had done.
Most of us believe ourselves to be to be above average compared with most other people: better drivers, better at evaluating character, more ethical and capable. Indeed when people begin to feel that they are below average that alone can lead to a referral to a psychologist, for it may be a sign of depression or some other disorder.
How is it that we are so good at insulating ourselves against reality? That is the core question that Cordelia Fine tries to answer in this, ahem, fine book.
She details - perhaps, at times, over-details - a number of fascinating research studies into the very common problem of self-deception and self-distortion. This is a problem that stretches beyond the confines of academic psychology into psychotherapy, personal and spiritual development, relationships and even politics.
She coins a nice term - our "Vain brain" - to capture the way in which we distort reality about ourselves and the ways in which the brain biases perception to favor the perceiver. It is a commonplace that when things are going well, we tend to attribute our success to our sterling qualities, while failures are more commonly a result of bad luck and trouble, the perfidy of others or that there were other "reasons" that staked the deck against us. Our brains have a remarkable ability to edit our memories and insights in such a way that it can constantly protect us from the truths that surround us.
Cordelia also discusses the way in which the brain warps perceptions to match emotions. She discusses one of the most bizarre things that you will see in clinical practice: the so-called Cotard delusion in which people believe that they, or parts of their bodies, are dead. It most often occurs in psychotic depression in the elderly: the depression drives the thought that they are dead.
One of the things that makes this book interesting is that Cordelia also proposes some ways of dealing with the problems of a self-deception driven by unconscious (? preconscious) processes: recognize and acknowledge your brain's scheming, and become aware of the ways in which your brain and mind play tricks upon you; develop greater self-awareness and work to see the world as it is. Though she does not explicitly say so, this is what spiritual teachers have recommended for millennia.
She also mentions the way in which we can recruit our unconscious processes to fulfill unconscious aspirations. She does not go into very much detail about the "hows" of doing so, and that might be a good topic for her next book.
This is a well-written, entertaining and engaging book that I recommend highly.
Richard G. Petty, MD, author of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life
40 of 43 people found the following review helpful
In "Consciousness Explained", philosopher Daniel C. Dennett proposed a Multiple Drafts Model for human consciousness. The drafts were assemblages of information derived from however the brain stores memory information. The retrieval and use process was only partially outlined by Dennett and some have said he only "explained away" consciousness. Cornelia Fine has done some assemblage of her own, retrieving a wealth of cognitive science and behaviour studies to formulate some new ideas about how the human mind works. In a light, almost breezy style, she presents some fascinating insights. Whether "conscious" of it or not, her analysis validates Dennett's original premise. Ideas reside in the mind to be picked over and drawn upon when required. Who does the selecting?
The brain, she says, is a powerful organ. So powerful that, as the title states, it has "a mind of its own". There are patterns in the brain which lie either hidden or dormant, emerging sometimes when prompted by events, or remaining obscure even while driving our behaviour. While she can't "place" these elements in the brain, they can be demonstrated through a variety of testing procedures or by examination of people suffering various forms of brain trauma. Her chapter titles depict the factors as "Vain Brain", "Deluded Brain", "Immoral Brain", "Bigoted Brain" and others. Each of these chapters describes how the brain manifests these conditions and, in some cases, where the trait originated. That many of these conditions can be formed in childhood and remain fixed in place even when countered by later information is little short of frightening. It's not quite confirmation of "the blank slate", but uncomfortably close. The brain, once matured, is amazingly resistant to later challenges.
Fine correctly opens the book with "The Vain Brain", since it is ourselves that concern us most. Even though the human species evolved to live group-oriented lives, our brains are overwhelmingly concerned with the individual they inhabit. We form opinions about ourselves, which become firmly entrenched even when there is good reason to modify that ego-centrism. When we succeed in any social competition, it seems only "natural", but when we fail, we rationalise the defeat in many ways. This attitude is carried through in domestic relations, work environments or any other social circumstance. Nearly every social interaction arises from each of us "negotiating from a position of strength". Yet, in "The Weak-willed Brain", we learn that we also provide ourselves with any excuse for failing to carry through on our intentions. Goal-seeking requires massive amounts of mental resources to achieve success, and the brain, which already consumes a fifth of our body's resources just to tick over, is easily wearied.
The author's sources in producing this book are many and varied. Brain injuries, whether externally caused or as the result of stroke or other lesion, have provided the basis for many insights on behaviour. Thankfully, she doesn't trot out poor old Phineas Gage again, as so many others have done. Other victims of brain trauma are presented, which some experienced readers will recognise from other sources. The main support for her classifications relies on numerous clinical or academic experiments. As she stresses often, many of these lie on or over the border of ethical limits. Participants have been shocked - electrically and emotionally - and results carefully tabulated. Fine is rightly concerned about the long-term effects on some volunteers, as were the more aware experimenters. Given what Fine reveals about the persistence of memory and its impact on "conscious" activity, her concern is well-founded. Yet, even those questionable experiments have demonstrated that much of what we believe is our personal expression of will is a false concept. We cannot dismiss the findings of such research because the data was achieved in a dodgy manner. As Fine explains, we mustn't assume we have full control of our own minds. The brain is "unscrupulous" and "unreliable" and we trust it at our peril. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
** with apologies to Steven Pinker
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on January 20, 2007
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The funny thing is the thought itself. Self-delusion is a keystone of human cognition and Cordelia Fine has described our sad state with great humor. Even though I got much of this from my undergraduate psych classes, Fine is such a wit and pulls the material together in such an engaging manner that I just loved reading the book.
I disagree with an earlier reviewer's suggestion that Kida's "Don't Believe Everything You Think" is a better book. I appreciated Kida's book a lot and it has a different goal for the reader. But as a writer I enjoyed Fine's delightful wit more. Both writers have something to offer towards a better understanding of human behavior.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2006
If you can't trust your own brain, who can you trust. We've all seen those drawings that fool your brain into thinking that this line is longer than that line or that these straight lines are curved. Those are just trivial, amateur things compared with the experiments described in this book.
In fact, what's really striking to me on this particular day (election day) is how the professional politicians seemed to have studied the brain and how it works very well. (I just got my fourth phone call - 'I am _____ and I really hate receiving those automated phone calls, but I've just got to tell you ....) If she hates these calls so much, I agree, hang up on her machine, and am not going to vote for her.
This book is aimed at the interested casual reader. But if you're in advertising, public relations, sales, or (God forbid) politics, I'd consider this book to be mandatory reading. And that's besides it being fun and interesting.
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on April 17, 2008
You think you know who you are and what you are doing, but really you don't. That's the message in Fine's book. In 8 chapters she shows us how our mind plays tricks on us: it distorts evidence, stereotypes, applies double standards, and will influence our beliefs and behavior in ways we don't have a clue about . All to make us feel better about ourselves and the world we live in. By the end of this book we will not look at ourselves the same way.
Fine dishes up the disturbing product of decades of research in social psychology in a non-intellectual, humorous style. The book is basically a giant string of metaphors that make vivid how we are manipulated by our unconcsious. The unconscious is our lawyer, butler and our sergeant major It is vain, pigheaded and bigoted. It is even compared to someone matching socks. Fine typically constructs sentences like "Certainly we do not have razorsharp rationality to thank for quickly felling any tentatively sprouting seedlings of insanity".
This metaphor-fest makes the book very accessible and often funny, and earns her stars. However, inevitably, it comes at the expense of precision. You will not find things that convince the firm skeptic: experiments explained in great detail, evaluation of the robustness of the claims or rigorous definition of the concepts.
If you want hard science of the unconscious, you may be better off elsewhere (Timothy Wilson does a bit better in this respect). If you want an entertaining and disturbing account of how we deceive ourselves, read Fine.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 28, 2009
Cordelia Fine's book, A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, showcases an aspect of the brain many scientists and researchers don't talk about: how your brain manipulates stimuli to your favor. Through the summations of hundreds of research studies, Fine portrays the brain as a manipulative force which protects us from the environment. Our brains, Fine concludes, are egotistic. We are always right, always attractive, and always considerate and never biased or with faults - even when faced with evidence of the contrary. I read this book for my undergraduate neuroscience course, and was overall satisfied with the information presented.
Fine presents information through a series of analogies of research studies to her personal life, which may leave the reader, as it left me, disinterested. While informative, the style of writing and tone of the book edges of gossipy in nature, and does not represent the seriousness or complexity of the material it describes. The tone of the book therefore becomes too casual and distracting at times; this weighed heavily into my rating of this book. When Fine sticks to describing research studies, her tone may be helpful to those not versed in the field. Complex research studies are boiled down to their essence, describing only the important set up scenarios and final outcomes. Then, Fine curtly states what this means. This honestly, is likely good for most readers as many difficult subjects are explained sensibly and understandably. For those wishing a deeper understanding, namely WHY, not just "this happens as shown in this study", this book falls short.
The book is broken down into 8 chapters, each similar in structure. Fine begins each chapter with a story relatable to the few housewives of the audience who might be reading this book; something about her kid, her husband, or her unborn kid, or some combination of the three. From there, Fine shows us how these everyday actions are the result of our brains. The tone ranges from informal to methodic and back to informal when Fine culminates each chapter with another maternal comment about her family. This is truly my only complaint with the book. The information presented in the rest of the book reads extremely easily, almost like a good research journal summary article. Most of the studies are relatable and easily understood.
Fine provides a large amount of research studies on which she bases her conclusions (there are 20 pages worth of citations at the end of the book). These studies are used to explain 8 aspects of the distorting brain: vanity, emotions, immorality, delusions, steadfastness, guile, unconscious deception, and bigotry. However, many of Fine's best examples and arguments arise in the first section of this book with a simple scenario: everyone assumes were are the best driver on the road, despite the speeding tickets, bumps, dents, dings, scratches, and crashes that prove otherwise. This is our brain at work, Fine says, manipulating what we think as to protect ourselves. Coupled with our ego is our memory, and fine credits many studies that show the positive events are more accurately stored in memory than negative events. Thus, our brains get an extra ego boost each time something good happens yet we shun off (most) negative events. Fine notes that this goes against the obvious (and as we learn in later chapters, it is our brains that conclude what is obvious), and despite the strong evidence for it, our brains our steadfast in conviction against the obvious answer. It knows what's right, and its not budging.
Also discussed are how subliminal messages affect our brain, which I found to be one of the most interesting sections. Fine notes experiments that show how culture affects which words come to mind when shown strings of letters. For example, the word POLI_E is completed as POLICE is America but as POLITE is Japan. The author suggests that our brains have been shaped by the environment and are now responding in ways to relate with others in the environment. Fine also noted another interesting subconscious experiment that showed participants responded they were thirsty when subconsciously shown pictures of coke cans flashed between frames of The Simpsons.
In all, this book was very bipolar to me. At times, it was extremely engaging and interesting. I enjoyed the studies presented and the detail shown. On the other hand, there were times I could not stand to read anymore of Fine's casual writing style. I found any paragraph mentioning the words "my infant son" or "my husband" extremely dreary, which unfortunately was easily three pages of every chapter. However, if you wish to gain an introductory level understanding of basic neuroscience concepts presented in a nonchalant, casual manner, Fine's A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives is an excellent book. However, if you wish a deeper understanding, I would suggest another book.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 15, 2007
This is an excellent book. It brings together a wealth of academic research into the way our brains work and, in particular, how we can't rely on them, and I found this fascinating and in the case of some chapters genuinely helpful and illuminating. What sets the book apart is the fact that this material is presented so clearly and readably - and it's often very funny - but that doesn't mean it's simplistic. The last reviewer said it was suitable for 12 year olds but the fact that it is easy to understand doesn't make it any less insightful.
This book was strongly recommended to me by a friend and I'm very glad I have now read it. I in turn recommended it to a friend who is an eminent psychiatrist, and in fact he'd already read it and thought it was very good too. So it works for a top brain-doctor and for a complete layman like me. Exceptional.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 2010
This is a wonderful book. The author has a magic formula for capturing and keeping the attention of her readers despite the sometimes heavy stuff she's unloading on them. She combines a delightful sense of humor, an often self-effacing personal candor, and a thorough knowledge of her field to create a lucid demonstration of what we know and think we know about our own minds.
While most of the information has been presented in other earlier works, Dr. Fine does a splendid job of making our motives and behaviors much more transparent than many of them do--though my all time favorite is still Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, Third Edition.
I found some of the more sobering information a little depressing. While the author makes her discussion of these areas, many of them dealing with racism and sexism, upbeat, I can't help but feel that changing anything in a positive way will be a very up-hill proposition. The most hopeful of her observations is that while we may continue to be both unconscious racists or sexists, at least by arming ourselves with this knowledge, we can start to make changes in our behavior and in our society; fore warned is fore armed, as it's said.
This probably is a very good starting point for anyone interested in the topic of mind and how it works. The author does not give a great amount of neurological or biochemical information on the underpinnings of the nervous system, as "Zebras" does, nor does she go extensively into the neuropathology that has given science so many insights into the workings of the human mind, as do Sachs, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, or Domaso The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, so it shouldn't be a "scary" read for the uninitiated. It therefore makes a perfect book for "getting aquainted" with the subject and provides a fine set of end notes with bibliographic entries for further reading.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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This is a breezily and wittily written book on an important subject--the quirkiness of the brain and its functioning that often leads us to distort "reality" and deceive ourselves. It refers to a wide range of literature, such as that on cognitive "heuristics," shortcuts that we use to make decisions--and many of which lead us to rather strange conclusions.
One of these heuristics which Cordelia Fine mentions at some length is the so-called "fundamental attribution error." Here, one explains one's defective decisions in terms of forces or circumstances outside ourselves; when others do the same thing, we attribute their behavior to motives or laziness or some other internal characteristic. In other words, we cut ourselves lots of slack. This error is mentioned over and over in the book, to good effect.
She begins the book with a sly way of expressing her thesis (page 2): ". . .the truth of the matter. . .is that your unscrupulous brain is entirely undeserving of your confidence. It has some shifty habits that leave the truth distorted and disguised." This book might be considered in concert with Linden's recent book, "The Accidental Mind," in which he argues that the brain, as a result of the evolutionary process, is not any example of excellent engineering. Fine's book plays with the same thesis in a different way.
Some may be skeptical because of the writing style. However, whether she is describing Milgram's experiment or other research of which I am familiar, she does so in a way that reflects pretty accurately my understanding of those pieces of research. Hence, I appreciate the fact that she has made accessible to a broader audience important scientific research.
One example of how we delude ourselves that she mentioned a couple times: those who support President Bush ignore the evidence that there were no WMDs and believe that the U.S. actually found them; those who oppose the President observe that there were no WMDs and the war was based on erroneous assumptions. Whatever your political views, the findings that she mentions clearly indicate that evidence isn't very relevant when one's emotions and feelings are at stake. We'll often distort "reality" to fit with what we want to believe. And our brain is a key part of such intriguing results.
For those familiar with the brain and cognitive psychology and related fields, this won't tell you a whole lot that is new, but it sure is fun to read. For those who are not so well acquainted with the literature, this is a pleasant way of becoming more familiar with important work that is ongoing.