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A Mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives 1st Edition

28 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0393062137
ISBN-10: 0393062139
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Vain, immoral, bigoted: this is your brain in action, according to Fine, a research associate at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Australian National University. Fine documents a wealth of surprising information about the brain in this readable account that adopts a good-humored tone about the brain's failings without underestimating the damage they do. The brain, she shows, distorts reality in order to save us from the ego-destroying effects of failure and pessimism. For example, an optimist who fails at something edits the truth by blaming others for the failure and then takes complete credit for any successes. The brain also routinely disapproves of other people's behavior (how could he do that?), while at the same time interpreting one's own actions in the best possible light (I would never do that!). The brain also projects stereotypes onto others that reflect prejudicial beliefs rather than objective reality. Despite the firm hold these distortions have on our brains, Fine is not a pessimist. The path to overcoming stereotypes and other distortions of the brain, she says, may be gained through self-awareness and knowledge provided by experimental psychology, a field that explores and exposes unconscious mental influences. (July)
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From Scientific American

Many psychological studies show that on average, each of us believes we are above average compared with others—more ethical and capable, better drivers, better judges of character, and more attractive. Our weaknesses are, of course, irrelevant. Such self distortion protects our egos from harm, even when nothing could be further from the truth. Our brains are the trusted advisers we should never trust. This "distorting prism" of selfknowledge is what Cordelia Fine, a psychologist at the Australian National University, calls our "vain brain." Fine documents the lengths to which a human brain will go to bias perceptions in the perceiver’s favor. When explaining to ourselves and others why something has gone well or badly, we attribute success to our own qualities, while shedding responsibility for failure. Our brains bias memory and reason, selectively editing truth to inflictless pain on our fragile selves. They also shield the ego from truth with "retroactive pessimism," insisting the odds were stacked inevitably toward doom. Alternatively, the brain of "selfhandicappers" concocts nonthreatening excuses for failure. Furthermore, our brains warp perceptions to match emotions. In the extreme, patients with Cotard delusion actually believe they are dead. So "pigheaded" is the brain about protecting its perspective that it defends cherished positions regardless of data. The "secretive" brain unconsciously directs our lives via silent neural equipment that creates the illusion of willfulness. "Never forget," Fine says, "that your unconscious is smarter than you, faster than you, and more powerful than you. It may even control you. You will never know all of its secrets." So what to do? Begin with self-awareness, Fine says, then manage the distortions as best one can. We owe it to ourselves "to lessen the harmful effects of the brain’s various shams," she adds, while admitting that applying this lesson to others is easier than to oneself. Ironically, one category of persons shows that it is possible to view life through a clearer lens. "Their self-perceptions are more balanced, they assign responsibility for success and failure more even-handedly, and their predictions for the future are more realistic. These people are living testimony to the dangers of self-knowledge," Fine asserts. "They are the clinically depressed." Case in point.

Richard Lipkin


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton; 1 edition (July 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393062139
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393062137
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 6.7 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #782,848 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

96 of 102 people found the following review helpful By William Holmes VINE VOICE on October 28, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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!
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43 of 46 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Richard G. Petty on August 31, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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41 of 44 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on October 19, 2006
Format: Hardcover
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.
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