Books which ask the question “what’s wrong with our brains” are a current pop-psychology staple. Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own was ahead of this trend, as it was first published in 2005.
A Mind of Its Own explores some ways in which our brains don’t make sense, and the cognitive biases which funnel us down faulty mental shortcuts. The books starts with the bias equivalent of little white lies, detailing how almost all of us are biased to see things as a little easier, happier, and less flawed than they really are. From this gentle introduction, Fine talks us through the progressively larger mental failings discovered through social psychology studies.
Fine writes in an educated and practiced way, gracefully balancing short, clear descriptions alongside long complex sentences with a writer’s vocabulary. Her vocabulary choice and style means her writing is easily distinguished in the sea of popular-psychology books. She also clearly references the studies she discusses, by providing an appendix which contains citations for every footnote in every chapter.
“Freud suggested that the ego ‘rejects the unbearable idea’, and since then experimental psychologists have been peeling back the protective layers encasing our self-esteem to reveal the multitude of strategies our brains use to keep our egos plump and self-satisfied. Let’s start with some basic facts. When asked, people will modestly and reluctantly confess that they are, for example, more ethical, more nobly motivated employees, and better drivers than the average person. In the latter case, this even includes people interviewed in hospital shortly after extraction from the mangled wrecks that were once their cars. No one considers themselves to fall in the bottom half of the heap, and statistically, that’s not possible.”
In the middle of the book, Fine dives in to philosophical issues such as free will and consciousness. Much of this chapter is inspired by the experiments of neuroscientist Benjamin Libet, which seemed to show that people experienced the muscular impulse to move their fingers before they consciously had the desire to move their fingers. While some authors and online thinkers have extrapolated from Libet’s research and promoted the view that free will is solely an illusion, Fine steers clear of joining them. Instead, she encourages readers to think about the question, and to imagine the consequences of that conclusion.
Tackling consciousness in a popular science book (or even an academic book) is a communication challenge; any attempt to discuss consciousness can become a linguistic minefield littered with permutations of “x-self-, “x-you” and “not-x”. Rather than relying on these multiple terms, Fine instead uses analogies based on a “secret commander”. She structures dialogues between the “secret commander” and the brain to convey these abstract concepts in a relatively concrete way; although simplied, her explanations are accessible and easy to integrate with other parts of the book.
As AMOIO is almost entirely based on the findings of various social psychology experiments, Fine often needs to provide descriptions of general research methods, and of how indiviual experiments were carried out. Generally, these descriptions provide the gist of a study. However, the chapter on priming experiments seems to combine two conflicting concepts without explaining how they can coexist.
In her introduction to priming, Fine likens priming to waking up neurons which are relevant to the stimulus; these woken neurons wake up their neighbours, who wake up their neighbours, and so on. Fine discusses how every word, sound and idea can prime others, and how we are continually being primed by every stimulus we experience, in ways which make sense only to us. However, she then segues into describing experiments where primes are contrasted against neutral stimuli. To me, this combination made no sense: if every stimulus can prime, then how can anything be neutral? Also, how can we know that the prime stimulus is having the intended effect in every participant?
The penultimate chapter is home to the largest and most impactful family of biases; racial biases. Here, AMOIO develops its most serious tone and makes you think about the impact of a society built on biased brains. For me, this chapter invited a weighty sense of frustration; I also questioned whether some of these consequences could ever be undone. The final chapter, which discusses how we can start to fix the problems induced by our biases, is optimistic enough to lighten that weight ever so slightly. However, Fine (sensibly) doesn’t pretend that merely trying to do better will instantly resolve issues. She explains that change is long-term, slow, and vulnerable to the exact same biases it aims to reduce; right now, that’s a useful message to hear.
Fine’s background research and writing ability mean that AMOIO is an engaging read that explains research findings well without straying into rambling or personal hypotheses. However, it has been let down by its subject matter, as in the 13 years since this book was first published, social psychology has lost some of its glory. Issues with replicating published studies, and faults within the entire field of social priming, have created doubt about how trustworthy many individual social psychology findings are.
This book could have been read uncritically in 2005, but not now. As a layperson’s guide to cognitive biases and blind spots, A Mind of Its Own succeeds due to its clear explanations and analogies. But anyone just discovering this book in 2018 would need to augment this information with more up-to-date material on social psychology, rather than blindly trusting the summaries presented here.