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by Cordelia Fine
W.W. Norton, 2008
Review by Elisabeth Herschbach, Ph.D. on Feb 24th 2009

A Mind of Its Own

Thanks to the wonders of the human brain, we can learn languages, solve complex mathematical problems, write symphonies and novels, concoct elaborate philosophical systems, and plumb the mysteries of the natural world. But as Cordelia Fine argues in A Mind of Its Own, unfortunately there are also some less flattering sides to that spongy mass of 100 billion or so neurons encased in your skull.

Alarmingly slapdash in its approach to the truth, your brain manipulates, distorts, and censors evidence to fashion a more palatable version of reality for itself. Capricious and easily distracted, it is swayed by emotions that cloud your judgment and unconscious impulses that exert a hidden influence over your will. Prone to wild irrationalities, stubbornly close-minded, it finds evidence for its pre-established beliefs where none exists and blinds itself to counter-evidence with the help of strategically selective powers of reason and memory. Blinkered by self-love, it indulges in ego-inflating vanities and self-serving fictions while at the same time succumbing to unsavory stereotypes and prejudices about others. In short, Fine argues, "Your brain is vainglorious. It's emotional and immoral. It deludes you. It is pigheaded, secretive, and weak-willed. Oh, and it's also a bigot" (2).

Drawing on a wide range of studies in cognitive psychology, A Mind of Its Own explores each of these shifty traits of the brain in eight engaging, highly readable chapters-- "The Vain Brain," "The Emotional Brain," "The Immoral Brain," "The Deluded Brain," "The Pigheaded Brain," "The Secretive Brain," "The Weak-Willed Brain," and "The Bigoted Brain"-- that document in fascinating detail the extent to which the truth-stretching, ego-boosting tactics of the brain keep us well-insulated from reality.

A Mind of Its Own is written for a general audience, so if you're looking for a high-level or in-depth discussion of cognitive psychology or neuroscience, this may not be the book for you. But there's no shortage of interesting material in the book, and Fine, currently a research associate at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, has a knack for presenting it in a clear, accessible, even humorous way, mixing crisp summaries of the psychological research with lighthearted anecdotes-- usually featuring her husband and infant sons-- that lend a breezy charm to her writing.

"Being confronted with the evidence of the distorting and deceptive window dressings of the brain is unsettling," Fine writes. "A brain with a mind of its own belies our strong sense that the world is just as it seems to us, and our misguided belief that our vision of 'out there' is sharp and true" (202). But unsettling as it is to realize just how distorted our perception of ourselves and the world may be, A Mind of Its Own is a thoroughly enjoyable read, as entertaining as it is informative.

Fortunately, it turns out that we have some reasons for appreciating at least some of the brain's distorting window dressings. Though our emotions may skew our perception and judgment, research into various disorders in emotional arousal -- Cotard's syndrome, for example, a delusion in which patients believe that they are dead or nonexistent -- shows that the emotions are essential to our very ability to maintain a sense of self. The brain's use of schemas -- mental categories used to organize and store information -- may be to blame for our ugly habit of succumbing to stereotypes about others, yet at the same time, schemas are what allow the brain to work efficiently, providing us with a quick means to extract and interpret information in a complicated world. And though the self-aggrandizing tricks of our vain brains may make us despair of ever living up to that noble Socratic dictum "Know Thyself," studies suggest that both our emotional and physical well-being may benefit from being shielded from the harsh light of reality. "There is in fact a category of people who get unusually close to the truth about themselves and the world. 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," Fine writes. "These people are living testimony to the dangers of self-knowledge. They are the clinically depressed" (23).

For those still holding out for the possibility of truth and knowledge, there is some comfort in knowing that, with conscious determination, we are capable of seeing the world more accurately. Although we can never entirely cast off the brain's distortions and deceptions, we do have some means for mitigating their effects. "We are not entirely defenseless martyrs to the fictions of the brain" (208), as Fine puts it.

When we know that we are going to be held accountable for our judgments, we're less susceptible to being manipulated by the moods and emotions that, as Fine shows in Chapter 2, can bias our moral judgments of others. With effort and vigilance, we can resist succumbing to stereotypes, or at least train ourselves to replace harmful prejudices with more acceptable ones. And those on the receiving end of harmful stereotypes can overcome the effects of stereotype threat-- a pattern of behavior in which one's fear of conforming to a certain stereotype ends up adversely affecting one's actual behavior-- by being made conscious of those effects. As researchers showed, the performance gap between men and women on a math test disappeared when test-takers were told beforehand that no gender differences had ever been found on the test in question. Another study showed that simply telling test-takers about the phenomenon of stereotype threat and its typical effects was enough to close the gender gap predicted by the stereotype.

When we are aware of their potential to influence us, the moods and emotions, stereotypes, and biases that manipulate our brains-- all those drapes and layers obscuring our window on reality-- lose some of their effects. Thus, Fine argues, "recognizing and acknowledging our vulnerability to the many common machinations of the brain provides modest scope to guard against them" (207). Indeed, she slyly adds, "simply by reading this book you [will] have lightly armored yourself against attacks on the integrity of your judgments and behavior" (207). But perhaps that is just her vain brain talking.

© 2009 Elisabeth Herschbach

Elisabeth Herschbach has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches in Rhode Island.