- Hardcover: 224 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton; 1 edition (July 17, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393062139
- ISBN-13: 978-0393062137
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 61 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #567,586 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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A Mind of its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives 1st Edition
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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 othersmore 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 perceivers 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 brains 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.
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I love the part about how we believe in incredible things that would be qualified as insane if we just switch the characters:
"It is a tricky task to differentiate between faith and insanity without becoming somewhat subjective about it. Mental health professionals are not much concerned by the devout Christian who has been fortunate enough to experience the presence of Jesus. But if the identity of that presence happens to be Elvis, rather than the son of God, eyebrows begin to be raised"
This book is teeming with studies, facts and insights into the workings of the human mind and how the brain deceives itself. This is important information in world facing such daunting problems as ours.
We create flattering self-identities and then protect them in the face of evidence to the contrary. We are all delusional. We may like to think that we are logical actors, that we can be persuaded by reason, but when it comes to the test, (and there are many experimental tests) how we imagine ourselves to be, and how we act, are usually at odds.
Ms. Fine shows how we are vain, emotional, immoral, deluded, pigheaded, secretive, weak-willed, and bigoted. Is this enough to get you to want to read it? These are the chapter titles. This is an intriguing look into how vulnerable we are to external stimulus and how our brains delude us.
The only criticism I have, and it is a minor one, is that I would have preferred less about the author and her family.
The author discusses the infamous Milgram study of obedience to authority where a majority of volunteers gave other volunteers (actually experimenter confederates) what they thought were increasing amounts of electrical shock when the experimenter told them to. Inner moral virtue sometimes yields to external situations involving authority. My favorite study is the classic where a group of subjects have agreed to give a speech in another building. One group is told that if they leave now they will just get there on time. Another group was told they had plenty of time, and the third group was told they had to hurry as they will probably be late. On the way over to the next building each individual passed a man lying against a wall who seemed to be in considerable pain. Only 10% of the "late" group stopped to help. Only the "lots of time" group showed a stopping rate of over 50%. The kicker here is that these volunteers were students at Princeton Theological Seminary who had agreed to give a talk on the Good Samaritan. Do our inner values or attitudes always convert to behavior? Evidently not.
There's lots of good stuff on how we frequently delude ourselves into thinking we are doing a lot better than we really are - after all if we didn't we'd probably get depressed. Ms Fine has an extremely interesting section on "priming" in regard to stereotypes and prejudice. In one experiment one group of men were shown a group of ads that presented women as sex objects while another group were shown ads with no women in them. Individuals in each group were then asked to interview a female job applicant. Those who had seen the sexist ads just prior to the interview sat closer to the applicant, flirted more, and asked sexually inappropriate questions. How easily we can be influenced to display bigoted behavior.
This is definitely not one of those "new age" books that unfortunately tend to fill the Psychology section of most book stores. It is informative and entertaining, and will give you a good introduction to psychological research. I should point out that several of the older studies, like Milgram's, couldn't be undertaken today as current day experimental ethics rules won't allow them. Then, of course, there's the old joke that these studies tell us a lot about college sophomores (probably the biggest source of volunteers), but what about the rest of us?
Ms Fine also slips in some anecdotes about her experiences with her husband. They are generally quite amusing, but I can't help but think that she is giving us a cry for help.