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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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on April 29, 2016
What Makes Your Brain Happy And Why You Should Do The Opposite by David DiSalvo is a book composed of several scenarios and stories to help the readers get an understanding of how the brain works. Most of the scenarios are easy to connect to for the reader and give an understanding to how the metaphorical wheels in the brain were turning when in specific situations.
Your brain seems to take the road that will lead to its happiness. That road consists of many patterns and things that seem familiar to the brain, and therefore seem “right” to the brain. However, as David DiSalvo argues, this road is maybe something you should avoid. When on this road, there are many things you can overlook because your brain is selecting the things to pay attention to, the patterns and familiarities the brain is accustomed to. Our brain likes to take shortcuts and it is very energy efficient, it doesn’t need to waste a lot of energy on routines, it is automatic.
One scenario from the book is titled “Blinded By The Bleeding Obvious”, in which DiSalvo explains that the brain has “selective attention” or “selective bias”. This means that even when you are conscious the brain seems to pay attention only to patterns it can relate to, or it feels comfortable with. In this short scenario Phil, who is a “smart guy”, has to make sure all the students from a deaf and blind school are accounted for during his nightly shifts. Most of the students seem to leave the lights on when going to bed, and that is what Phil sees as normal. When he comes to a dorm room with the lights off, he opens the door to see if the student is inside, but it appears to be too dark so he called out the student’s name from the rooster he was given. When there is no answer from the students, he begins to worry and looks in all the bathrooms, any remaining rooms, and hallways, with still no sign of the student. He goes to the Administration office to report a missing student and is asked if he “was certain” the student is missing, which he replies he is. A search party was initiated at the campus and at the city. Later on it occurred to Phil to go back to the room of the missing student, and when he was there he reached for the lights and turned them on. At that point he see’s the “missing” student on their bed with earphones in. There was a pattern the Phil’s brain registered, lights on means student is sleeping, which is good. When coming across a room with the lights off, the pattern was broken and triggered a different response in Phil’s brain, which in turn made him immediately act as if there was no other option except for the student being missing. He left the room without giving it another glance by turning the lights on, he was all so certain that the student was not in the room. He was “blinded by the bleeding obvious”.
Furthermore, in “ A Happy Brain’s Social Preferences” DiSalvo argues that the brain does not follow specific stereotypes. An experiment is brought up where the participants were given the option to choose between other people who share the same view or those who have an opposing view. The people tend to pick the person with the same views on a certain subject rather than a person with opposite views, rationalizing that the person with the same views also has the same values and therefore is trustworthy. The experiment is also done when the people have to choose between the person with the similar view, but they have a negative stereotype and the person with an opposite view but they have a positive stereotype. The result is that the people tend to pick the person with the similar views regardless of their stereotype. It's a Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc argument that the brain is trying to convey, and you usually don’t even question this reasoning. The brain again feels comfortable with this person because of the shared views and picks this person over the one with different views, even if this may not always be the right option. The brain manipulates you to pick the option it feels more comfortable with, again regardless of the other factors that may contribute to the decision-making.
“You Feeling Me?” is a scenario in which the reader is at a party and a fight seems to break out with two male partygoers. You move over to see what the whole scene is about and the party seems to stop. The rest of the time the attention is on the two males who are no longer in a vocal conflict but who are now engaged in a physical fight. The people at the party have already picked sides in regards to the two males and have made it a conflict between the people watching too. Soon the people fighting are told to take it outside and the whole party is moved there where it continues. However, now the fight between the people watching has escalated from cheering on their “side” to yelling at the other party people cheering for the other male or “side”. This is where the scenario ended and then it is explained that the watcher’s thoughts and actions have been “infected” by the thoughts and actions of the two males. Studies have shown that emotions are considered contagious, just like they were at the party scenario. Although, sometimes when emotions have influenced others’ emotions, it can prompt people to take certain actions, again like described in the scenario.
David DiSalvo has a good psychological understanding of how to make your brain “happy”, and he can show this understanding through the different scenarios he provides in order to explain this to the readers. The readers have a clear understanding of the argument David DiSalvo is portraying. His diction is informal and he feels comfortable writing about his own life through anecdotes he shares with the readers.
This book was overall a great read. It suggests a point of how the brain works in everyday life. DiSalvo brings to our attention points, which do not provide a simple answer. One of them may include the fact that we live with this astonishing organ in our skulls, which was conceived in the womb, and it learns the routines of our daily lives.
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on March 1, 2015
I'm a social scientist studying the intersectionality of race, gender and the body in adolescent/teen girls' use of digital media like youtube. I also teach anthropology and sociology courses to undergraduates. Not only is this book and immeasurable treasure trove of scientific information, but it is also personally enlightning. I was particularly struck by Disalvo's discussion of loneliness, the use of electronic media, and his sharing of a variety of books that helped him produce this extraordinary text. DiSalvo is an extraordinarily effective translator of neuroscience research and a wonderful writer. I highly recommend this book to college students and professors as well as cultural critics of popular culture. It really helps you rethink what's going on today with media of all kinds as well as with our emotions and our brains.
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on December 22, 2013
Love this book. I find it less about what you should or shouldn't do, and more about understanding how our brain interprets things, and the pitfalls. The format is perfect for me. I don't want to wade through a whole dense book of science, but I love the little stand alone chapters. Or maybe they are more like articles. If you're at all interested in the brain, or know someone who likes science, or even science "lite" - this is a great gift. I also bought "This Will Make You Smarter" which is interesting in the same way, except that book is much more dense reading. You really have to like science to read that one. This book "what makes your brain.." is much more accessible and fun. Highly recommend it. I often go back and reread a section for fun.
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on July 11, 2012
Even though this is non-fiction and filled with scientific research, I found myself immersed in the book and could hardly put it down. If you are tired of anecdotal explanations of the strange choices that people make on a daily basis, then you will find this text quite refreshing. Every conclusion drawn by the author is backed by at least one study, if not more. The quality of the results and data from each study is explained in terms that are not too abstract or technical for the average reader who would choose a book of this sort.
If you struggle to understand the behavior of a friend or family member who suffers from a mood disorder or has addictive tendencies, then you will find some helpful information that is current and the best available at the time of the release date. There are no plans for self improvement here...it is up to the reader to digest and sort out what is useful to him or her.
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on January 18, 2013
I got this book from the library and found it interesting enough that I bought a copy so I could re-read it and my husband could read it. Some of it you would find in a basic psychology textbook (if you ever had to read such a thing) and some of I had never run across in my required reading for my psychology degree. It concentrates on the fact that everyone's thinking processes tend to be as automatic as possible and how these automatic processes are played out and the effects they may have. I particularly enjoyed the fact the author had a list of recommended readings with why he thought it was worth reading and blogs at the end as well as his references. I have ordered some of the recommended readings as well.
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on December 8, 2013
I love books on how the brain works. This one is very good. Not as entertainingly written as "Stumbling into Happiness", but it comes close, and covers some of the same ideas supported in that book as well as others, in its own way. This book will help you to "know thyself" and others in a more realistic way than most psychological self help books. Our brain does some crazy things and the more we know, the better we can work with it instead of against it, and be a happier person in the process.
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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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on December 29, 2012
Salvo brings together a lot of research about psychology, framing these as things we might want to watch out for in our own decision-making. For those not wanting a degree in Psychology, it's very practical while providing a decent amount of research backing up the assertions. For those interested in pop psychology, you may find it entertaining. Personally, I feel "Thinking Fast and Slow" does a better job. If you already know a bit about current psychological studies, you will probably find nothing new here.

I have to point out that he "blew it" for me, though. At the end of one of his sections he makes a reference to "Dr. Spock." From the context (the opposite of being emotionally wishy-washy) he obviously means "Mr. Spock." This might seem like an innocent mistake, but he (and any editors he had or should have had) lost many credibility points for me with that one.
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on May 6, 2013
This is a great round up of modern psychological research for the lay man. The structure of science-help vs self-help was useful. The studies are well-referenced but I can't help but wish some of them had been better described in the text. Many psych studies were described with interesting interpretations but with little description of whether they were high validity studies (eg n=?, were there major design faults, etc). That said, excess interpretation would've made this dull holiday reading and I'd had a couple of long island ice teas in a resort so I'd never have made it through. You'll certainly learn something reading this book but I found myself looking for some salt to take this with.
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