Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives Audio Cassette – Jul 11 2011
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[An] intriguing take on behavioral economics, marketing and human foibles. — Kirkus Reviews
An ingenious idea, and Buonomano has fully delivered on its promise. . . . A remarkably accessible and engaging introduction to the neuroscience of the human condition. — Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape
A great book, filled with nuggets about how the brain works—and falters—and even some suggestions on how to put it to better use. — Joseph LeDoux, author of The Emotional Brain --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
About the Author
Dean Buonomano is a professor in the Departments of Neurobiology and Psychology and the Brain Research Institute at UCLA. He lives in Los Angeles, California. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top Customer Reviews
The book also covers some of how advertisers and others can exploit some of our bugs to get us to do things that are not actually in our own best interest, so there is practical value as well.
I enjoyed reading this well-written book, so got entertained and informed at the same time. Strongly recommended.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The main argument: As much as we rely on our brains to navigate the complex world before us, anyone who has ever forgotten someone's name, or misread a situation, or made a poor decision in the heat of the moment knows that the brain does not always work as we would want. In his new book `Brain Bugs', neurobiologist Dean Buonomano explores the brain's many pitfalls and mistakes (and how and why it makes them), and also offers up some advice on how we can best manage these so called `brain bugs' in our everyday lives.
Buonomano identifies 3 major sources whence brain bugs originate. The first has to do with the fact that our brains are the product of evolution, and have evolved as they have to answer the specific challenges that we faced in our evolutionary history; therefore, while our brains may be well adapted to perform functions that were particularly important in our survival and reproduction in the environment in which our species evolved, they may not do as well at functions which, though handy, did not figure as prominently in our evolutionary past (remembering names seems to fall under this category). The second source of our brain bugs may be attributed to the fact that while evolution has brought us a host of useful mental abilities that have allowed us to survive and thrive, it is still a rather clumsy process, and as such does not always offer up perfect, or even optimal solutions; thus the mental systems that we have are sometimes prone to error and quirky behaviour (hence optical illusions, the ever raging and somewhat awkward battle between our reason and our impulses, and a number of other interesting effects). Finally, the third source of our brain bugs stems from the fact that while many of the brain systems that we have inherited were well adapted to the environment in which our species evolved, this environment has changed considerably in the recent past, to the point where some of the adaptations themselves may be ineffective and even counter-productive today (our craving of sugary, fatty foods, for instance, would have been very useful in the environment in which we evolved--where starvation was much more of a threat than heart disease, but can be positively disastrous in the modern world, where the opposite is more often the case). A full executive summary of the book is available at newbooksinbrief dot com.
As regular reader of popular science psychology books, I thought my opinion of the book might have been tainted by nostalgia and familiarity with the concepts but upon rereading passages from previous books I found that this was not the case. If you are looking for more enjoyable books in the same area I suggest reading:
Stumbling on Happiness
The Paradox of Choice
How we Decide
Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior
All of the above provide a more enjoyable experience by engaging the reader with interesting in-book activities and well paced writing.
+ I think that the book is poorly titled and subtitled. The terms 'bug' and 'flawed' imply that there is something wrong with our brains; however, as the author freely admits, our brains may be perfectly adapted for an environment that no longer exists. If a square peg doesn't fit into a round hole, it is wrong to slap the label 'buggy' and 'flawed' upon the peg - the hole is equally at fault. Furthermore, the term 'bug' implies a very specific and localized error in an otherwise correctly operating program, whereas the 'flaws' in the human brain that the author identifies are of a more generalized, systemic kind. So, I think that the book's title creates a misleading intellectual framework with which to view the book's contents.
+ I think that the chapter on religion was poorly done. I think it's better to view religion as just another of the many activities (some) humans do in their continual drive for personal comfort optimization. A valid question that may have a neuroscientific answer is why religious activities deliver the comforts they apparently do for some people.
+ It's remarkable that the author fails to mention the human tendency to procreate far more humans than can possibly be supported by their immediate environment, causing massive human (and non-human) suffering. I think that this is perhaps the number one human 'brain bug' afflicting life on Earth today, and yet the author is completely silent on this topic. Why? Could it be that a book 'attacking' standard dietary practices (rich in animal products, leading to vascular diseases), standard religious practices (mere superstition), and standard reproductive practices (the tragedy of overpopulation and the resulting environmental devastation) would take the typical recreational reader in neuroscience much too far from their comfort zone?
An example of the difficulties which arise in the attempt to use the brain for thinking rationally is rooted in the use of association for understanding the deluge of data each brain is presented with on a daily basis. Association works well to correlate a red color with a poisonous plant, less well to serve our own interests when it associates promise of sexual fulfillment with a cigarette brand, a make of car, a perfume fragrance, or a particular type of underwear, as a result of some advertisement. The book examines how these faults are capitalized on by advertisers and purveyors of political propaganda in order to sell us goods or to capture our vote.
A chapter on the human propensity to believe in supernatural causes provides thought provoking associations between the fallacies to which the brain is prone based on its neural hardware and beliefs in supernatural entities. By reading other reviews of this book, it is clear that a large number of people don't want this particular box opened and peered into. In all fairness, the data in this regard is far from conclusive. Moreover, Buonomano paints with a pretty broad brush in parts of this chapter, making several arguments which will only appeal to those who already agree with his viewpoint. On the other hand, he reviews several scientific hypotheses for why belief in a deity is such a common feature of human society.
Science is based on examining evidence and determining causal or likely correlations within this data. Ideally this is followed by testing an hypothesis in an experimental setting in which confounding variables are controlled for, thus allowing for a test of correlation or causation. As the belief in the presence of a god is based on faith, it falls outside of the realm of what can be investigated by methods of science. One question science can ask is why, in absence of compelling evidence for a God or gods in the external world, does this belief so commonly exist in human brains. Several thought provoking hypotheses are reviewed. Unfortunately, creating a controlled experiment to test these hypotheses is difficult to come by, short of creating an experimental earth complete with craggy fjords overseen by hyperintelligent pandimensional beings with the manifestation, in the human dimension, of mice.
A weakness of the book is the short chapter at the end of the book on avoiding the inherent limitations of the brain. Essentially he recommends scepticism and common sense. Fair enough as far as that goes, but one could expect a little more directed and helpful analysis.
This is my main criticism of this book: its lack of a more cohesive, comprehensive argument, particularly in the last two chapters. But that is not the aim. This is a quick, engaging, easily digested examination of the highlights of neuroscience and applications to areas pertinent to daily life, and in that regard it is successful.
Buonomano explores the nature of the human brain and its most apparent flaws, separating the book into 9 chapters 7 of which are devoted to specific "brain bugs", or in other terms, common pervasive cognitive mistakes that affect all of us in ways ranging from funny and annoying to downright deadly. The first chapter is simply an introduction into the associative architecture of the brain and the last chapter serves as a conclusion.
Despite the author's categorization of this book, I break the book into two basics categories. The first category (the one I prefer) is where the author actually tries to teach the reader about brain structure and function. He dives into Hebbian plasticity, action potentials, synapses, and neurotransmitters. Best of all, he creates really great analogies throughout that make these concepts more tangible and easier to process. I'll give an example (other than comparing a brain to a computer). The author illustrates the concept of a synapse as akin to a game show where the contestant has to decide between two answers and is allowed to poll the audience. "Some members of the audience have louder voices than others, or some are known to be more reliable. The behavior of a given neuron is determined by the net sum of what thousands of presynaptic neurons are telling it". This analogy the author makes in the first chapter "The Memory Webb" helped me understand that Hebbian Plasticity was sort of like a contestant yelling out an answer and then the contestant immediately listening and answering the question, and increasing the likely hood that this would happen in the future, "cells that wire together fire together". The entire book is full of helpful comparisons such as these. and to the author's credit with every analogy he makes he clearly states its shortcomings and how in some cases it defiantly is not a good representation of neural anatomy or biology.
The second category that i break this book into (a significantly smaller portion) is where the author sheds his role of helpful instructor and takes on the role of opinionated scientist who takes for granted that any kind of religious belief is illogical and that having one is evidence of maladaptive neural circuitry caused by the evolutionary process. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and Buonomano makes (for the most part) a very logical case for what he says, but I felt much of what the author says about religion (there is a surprisingly large amount) had no place in this book. He devotes an entire chapter to it entitled "The Supernatural Bug". The farthest I think the author should have gone on this topic is to investigate the tendency of people to believe in things that are not scientifically provable. The route he takes is a bit more offensive. As I am writing a review and not a rebuttal I won't go to much into this, I just think that anyone who is considering reading this book should know that the author spends a considerable amount of time making a case for atheism. I was not expecting this when I started reading this book and was sort of blind sided by it.
The most interesting part of this book by far is chapter six entitled "Unreasonable Reasoning". In this chapter the author touches on manipulative psychological techniques such as framing, Anchoring and Loss aversion. The truly fascinating part of this chapter however is the part that deals with probability blindness. Essentially all the tricks that a casino uses in order for people to think that games aren't as unfair as they actually are and other things of that nature. To illustrate his points he poses a few statistical questions to the reader that seem quite obvious, I got literally every one of them wrong. Perhaps most interestingly, he explains the Monty Hall Problem in a way that actually makes sense. For those who don't know the Monty Hall problem is essentially a problem where someone has to guess between three containers to find one prize. After guessing Monty Hall reveals that there is no prize in one of the unpicked containers, the person is then asked if they would like to change their choice and statistically speaking the answer should always be yes. I won't spoil the explanation, but trust me its great.
All in all this book is well written, informative, and interesting. If you don't hold any strong religious views or like learning about the points of view of people who disagree with you I recommend this book. If I am to be brutally honest though, this book is really just a less awesome version of BRAIN RULES (written by John Medina), and because it focuses solely on the brain's flaws its kind of a bummer.