What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite Paperback – Nov 22 2011
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"DiSalvo offers ‘science-help’ (as opposed to self-help) by detailing the mental shortcuts our minds like to take but that don’t always serve us well, with the assumption that understanding brain function helps us fight its stubborn behavior."
"This book is the Swiss Army knife of psychology and neuroscience research—handy, practical, and very, very useful. It boils down the latest findings into simple, easy-to-understand lessons you can apply to your daily life."
-Joseph T. Hallinan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Why We Make Mistakes
"A five-star intellectual smorgasbord of the latest speculations on what makes us tick."
Robert Burton, MD, Author of On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not
"This book will make your brain happy—in a good way. With engaging prose and compelling stories, DiSalvo provides a fast-paced overview of mental shortcuts and foibles that make us happy in the short term, often to our long-term detriment."
-Daniel Simons, Author of The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us
"DiSalvo takes us on mind trips to the frontiers of brain and behavior research—and, being a superb guide, shows us how each development is useful, exciting, and inspired by wonder."
-Jena Pincott, Author of Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? Bodies, Brains, and Behavior: The Science behind Love, Sex, and Attraction
"A well-researched and effectively argued guide to uncovering the reasons why we so often think and act in ways that undermine our best interests, and it’s also full of knowledge about why humans manipulate each other. If you want to know more about why you do what you do, and how to avoid becoming the victim of someone else’s manipulation tactics, I encourage you to read this book."
-Philip Zimbardo, PhD, Author of The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil and past president of the American Psychological Association
About the Author
David DiSalvo (Atlanta, GA) is a science, technology, and culture writer whose work appears in Scientific American Mind, Psychology Today, Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Mental Floss, and other publications. He is also the writer behind the well-regarded science blogs Neuronarrative and Neuropsyched.
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Top Customer Reviews
DiSalvo pitches the book at a general audience, making this an excellent introduction to a wide range of important topics about the mind. Each topic presents a scientific study to back it up, and many also include a fictional example of how it would work in real life. In this regard, it's a five-star book. The downside is that the topics jump almost randomly at times, with little overall coherent narrative. Furthermore, citing only a single study (sometimes two) leaves one unsure of just how proven each idea is. Is there controversy over any of the ideas he presents? How many other scientists agree with the evidence he presents? Ironically in a book that often preaches skepticism, DiSalvo asks that you rely on his reading of the literature as the truth.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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."
So I was quite surprised when this one seemed a little different. It does an excellent job at explaining the issues and it is one of the few books in this area that devotes a reasonable amount of space to what you can actually do to avoid the problems. The author devotes one whole chapter at the end to 50 techniques to help you avoid your brain faults and he scatters other advice through most of the rest of the book.
The book is organized well, it is very clear in its explanation, and it reads easily and quickly. It kept my attention throughout. There is an excellent resources section at the end of the book which describes a large number of related books and blogs. That resource list alone is probably worth the price of the book.
To top it off this book has Amazon's "Look Inside!" feature that let's you preview before you buy. Well done and highly recommended.