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Mind Of Its Own [Paperback]

Cordelia Fine
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

May 27 2008
How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives

The brain's power is confirmed and touted every day in new studies and research. And yet we tend to take our brains for granted, without suspecting that those masses of hard-working neurons might not always be working for us. Cordelia Fine introduces us to a brain we might not want to meet, a brain with a mind of its own. She illustrates the brain's tendency toward self-delusion as she explores how the mind defends and glorifies the ego by twisting and warping our perceptions. Our brains employ a slew of inborn mind-bugs and prejudices, from hindsight bias to unrealistic optimism, from moral excuse-making to wishful thinking-all designed to prevent us from seeing the truth about the world and the people around us, and about ourselves.

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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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Positive self-esteem, whether about one's morality, rationality, altruism, emotional maturity, or tolerance, takes a drubbing in this book. It's an unsettlingly entertaining tour of experimental psychology, which diabolically puts normality to the test. One result ripped empathy to shreds: in a 1963 obedience experiment learned by psychology students, Stanley Milgram showed how to turn anyone into a torturer. Built around discussions of particular experiments, Fine's account illustrates the clinical with personal anecdotes featuring her two-year-old boy. The kid's adamant sense of right and wrong, emotional volatility, and meanness represent every person's "terrible toddler within." Fine describes negative human traits and perceptively reflects on the brain's subconscious thoughts, which can produce pernicious habits such as blaming victims. In various ways, Fine writes, the brain is protecting the self from threats to its self--exaltation, defending against the capriciousness of the world (hence the sense of justice) or disbelief (hence traits of stubbornness and irrationality). An edifying exploration, wryly and ruefully expressed. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "How the Mind Works" - the latest version ** Oct. 19 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
In "Consciousness Explained", philosopher Daniel C. Dennett proposed a Multiple Drafts Model for human consciousness. The drafts were assemblages of information derived from however the brain stores memory information. The retrieval and use process was only partially outlined by Dennett and some have said he only "explained away" consciousness. Cornelia Fine has done some assemblage of her own, retrieving a wealth of cognitive science and behaviour studies to formulate some new ideas about how the human mind works. In a light, almost breezy style, she presents some fascinating insights. Whether "conscious" of it or not, her analysis validates Dennett's original premise. Ideas reside in the mind to be picked over and drawn upon when required. Who does the selecting?

The brain, she says, is a powerful organ. So powerful that, as the title states, it has "a mind of its own". There are patterns in the brain which lie either hidden or dormant, emerging sometimes when prompted by events, or remaining obscure even while driving our behaviour. While she can't "place" these elements in the brain, they can be demonstrated through a variety of testing procedures or by examination of people suffering various forms of brain trauma. Her chapter titles depict the factors as "Vain Brain", "Deluded Brain", "Immoral Brain", "Bigoted Brain" and others. Each of these chapters describes how the brain manifests these conditions and, in some cases, where the trait originated. That many of these conditions can be formed in childhood and remain fixed in place even when countered by later information is little short of frightening. It's not quite confirmation of "the blank slate", but uncomfortably close. The brain, once matured, is amazingly resistant to later challenges.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
I like an informative book that also entertains with lively and humorous anecdotes. Fine delivers on both accounts. We all know that others are whacky with their self-serving philosophies and explanations, but Fine shows us with a variety of humorous stories how we ourselves participate in our own delusion; that we indeed see the world the way it really is. Fine personalizes many of her accounts by using her family as illustrations. This makes our own delusion-making processes acceptable. She also leads us to a conflicting insight: While we can, with meticulous attention to our own thinking, become aware of our own delusional and self-serving understanding of ourselves and the world, this automatic process that takes place almost totally outside our conscious awareness, won't let is in on the process entirely. Hence, A Mind of Its Own. Fun and informative.
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5.0 out of 5 stars very enjoyable and enlightening Feb. 16 2011
Format:Paperback
as the author says, "much of what you think you know is not quite what it seems". Excellent read on how our thinking (perception) of ourselves, the world and ourselves in the world often does not equate with reality.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  50 reviews
93 of 99 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Making It Up As We Go Oct. 28 2006
By William Holmes - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Cordelia Fine's "A Mind of its Own" reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink"--it is filled with surprising and counterintuitive observations about how the brain really works. Fine's thesis is that our brains do a fine job of deluding us--making us think that we are smart, attractive, above average, considerate, unbiased and blissfully free of the shortcomings and moral defects that plague other people. It's a good thing, too--as Fine points out in one striking paragraph, "there is a category of people who get unusually close to the truth about themselves and the world. . . . They are the clinically depressed." Ignorance really is bliss!

With a witty style, Fine reviews the psychological experiments that show that our moods and judgments can be dramatically influenced by external factors like beautiful weather or by what someone just said or did to us. Our brains make up lots of excuses after the fact to explain what we did and why, or to shift blame to others, all in an effort to make it seem that we are good people who are in control of our lives. We end up being bigoted, pigheaded, immoral and emotional, even when we think we are none of those things. On the whole, it's not a very flattering picture, although Fine does point to some encouraging studies suggesting that some of the brain's worst excesses (e.g., bigotry) can be curbed by careful attention to our thoughts--of course, in other contexts (such as trying to fall asleep), focusing on our thoughts can make things worse!

This book is full of lots of "aha!" moments, but it's not a self-help guide. The message sometimes seems to be "you're not really in control here--try to enjoy the ride!"

That said, I draw one very important conclusion from this entertaining book: avoid spending time with scientists who are conducting psychology experiments. These people are apparently always testing things other than what they pretend to be testing, and your brain will invariably come out of the experiment looking rather shoddy and ill-mannered. ("Not my brain!" you may protest, in which case you definitely need to read Chapter 1 of Fine's book.)
41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can Your Trust Yourself To... Aug. 31 2007
By Dr. Richard G. Petty - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
According to the story, in a survey taken several years ago, all incoming freshman at MIT were asked if they expected to graduate in the top half of their class. Ninety-seven percent responded that they did.

And another piece of research in 1989 compared mathematical competence in students in eight different countries. Korean students ranked the highest in mathematical skills, while those in the United States had the lowest rating. Yet the American students had the highest overall opinion of their ability, while the Koreans who had the best results had the lowest opinion of how they had done.

Most of us believe ourselves to be to be above average compared with most other people: better drivers, better at evaluating character, more ethical and capable. Indeed when people begin to feel that they are below average that alone can lead to a referral to a psychologist, for it may be a sign of depression or some other disorder.

How is it that we are so good at insulating ourselves against reality? That is the core question that Cordelia Fine tries to answer in this, ahem, fine book.

She details - perhaps, at times, over-details - a number of fascinating research studies into the very common problem of self-deception and self-distortion. This is a problem that stretches beyond the confines of academic psychology into psychotherapy, personal and spiritual development, relationships and even politics.

She coins a nice term - our "Vain brain" - to capture the way in which we distort reality about ourselves and the ways in which the brain biases perception to favor the perceiver. It is a commonplace that when things are going well, we tend to attribute our success to our sterling qualities, while failures are more commonly a result of bad luck and trouble, the perfidy of others or that there were other "reasons" that staked the deck against us. Our brains have a remarkable ability to edit our memories and insights in such a way that it can constantly protect us from the truths that surround us.

Cordelia also discusses the way in which the brain warps perceptions to match emotions. She discusses one of the most bizarre things that you will see in clinical practice: the so-called Cotard delusion in which people believe that they, or parts of their bodies, are dead. It most often occurs in psychotic depression in the elderly: the depression drives the thought that they are dead.

One of the things that makes this book interesting is that Cordelia also proposes some ways of dealing with the problems of a self-deception driven by unconscious (? preconscious) processes: recognize and acknowledge your brain's scheming, and become aware of the ways in which your brain and mind play tricks upon you; develop greater self-awareness and work to see the world as it is. Though she does not explicitly say so, this is what spiritual teachers have recommended for millennia.

She also mentions the way in which we can recruit our unconscious processes to fulfill unconscious aspirations. She does not go into very much detail about the "hows" of doing so, and that might be a good topic for her next book.

This is a well-written, entertaining and engaging book that I recommend highly.

Richard G. Petty, MD, author of Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "How the Mind Works" - the latest version ** Oct. 19 2006
By Stephen A. Haines - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
In "Consciousness Explained", philosopher Daniel C. Dennett proposed a Multiple Drafts Model for human consciousness. The drafts were assemblages of information derived from however the brain stores memory information. The retrieval and use process was only partially outlined by Dennett and some have said he only "explained away" consciousness. Cornelia Fine has done some assemblage of her own, retrieving a wealth of cognitive science and behaviour studies to formulate some new ideas about how the human mind works. In a light, almost breezy style, she presents some fascinating insights. Whether "conscious" of it or not, her analysis validates Dennett's original premise. Ideas reside in the mind to be picked over and drawn upon when required. Who does the selecting?

The brain, she says, is a powerful organ. So powerful that, as the title states, it has "a mind of its own". There are patterns in the brain which lie either hidden or dormant, emerging sometimes when prompted by events, or remaining obscure even while driving our behaviour. While she can't "place" these elements in the brain, they can be demonstrated through a variety of testing procedures or by examination of people suffering various forms of brain trauma. Her chapter titles depict the factors as "Vain Brain", "Deluded Brain", "Immoral Brain", "Bigoted Brain" and others. Each of these chapters describes how the brain manifests these conditions and, in some cases, where the trait originated. That many of these conditions can be formed in childhood and remain fixed in place even when countered by later information is little short of frightening. It's not quite confirmation of "the blank slate", but uncomfortably close. The brain, once matured, is amazingly resistant to later challenges.

Fine correctly opens the book with "The Vain Brain", since it is ourselves that concern us most. Even though the human species evolved to live group-oriented lives, our brains are overwhelmingly concerned with the individual they inhabit. We form opinions about ourselves, which become firmly entrenched even when there is good reason to modify that ego-centrism. When we succeed in any social competition, it seems only "natural", but when we fail, we rationalise the defeat in many ways. This attitude is carried through in domestic relations, work environments or any other social circumstance. Nearly every social interaction arises from each of us "negotiating from a position of strength". Yet, in "The Weak-willed Brain", we learn that we also provide ourselves with any excuse for failing to carry through on our intentions. Goal-seeking requires massive amounts of mental resources to achieve success, and the brain, which already consumes a fifth of our body's resources just to tick over, is easily wearied.

The author's sources in producing this book are many and varied. Brain injuries, whether externally caused or as the result of stroke or other lesion, have provided the basis for many insights on behaviour. Thankfully, she doesn't trot out poor old Phineas Gage again, as so many others have done. Other victims of brain trauma are presented, which some experienced readers will recognise from other sources. The main support for her classifications relies on numerous clinical or academic experiments. As she stresses often, many of these lie on or over the border of ethical limits. Participants have been shocked - electrically and emotionally - and results carefully tabulated. Fine is rightly concerned about the long-term effects on some volunteers, as were the more aware experimenters. Given what Fine reveals about the persistence of memory and its impact on "conscious" activity, her concern is well-founded. Yet, even those questionable experiments have demonstrated that much of what we believe is our personal expression of will is a false concept. We cannot dismiss the findings of such research because the data was achieved in a dodgy manner. As Fine explains, we mustn't assume we have full control of our own minds. The brain is "unscrupulous" and "unreliable" and we trust it at our peril. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]

** with apologies to Steven Pinker
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A funny thing happened while I was thinking... Jan. 19 2007
By Brian V. Hunt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The funny thing is the thought itself. Self-delusion is a keystone of human cognition and Cordelia Fine has described our sad state with great humor. Even though I got much of this from my undergraduate psych classes, Fine is such a wit and pulls the material together in such an engaging manner that I just loved reading the book.

I disagree with an earlier reviewer's suggestion that Kida's "Don't Believe Everything You Think" is a better book. I appreciated Kida's book a lot and it has a different goal for the reader. But as a writer I enjoyed Fine's delightful wit more. Both writers have something to offer towards a better understanding of human behavior.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If You Can't Trust Your Own Brain Nov. 7 2006
By John Matlock - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If you can't trust your own brain, who can you trust. We've all seen those drawings that fool your brain into thinking that this line is longer than that line or that these straight lines are curved. Those are just trivial, amateur things compared with the experiments described in this book.

In fact, what's really striking to me on this particular day (election day) is how the professional politicians seemed to have studied the brain and how it works very well. (I just got my fourth phone call - 'I am _____ and I really hate receiving those automated phone calls, but I've just got to tell you ....) If she hates these calls so much, I agree, hang up on her machine, and am not going to vote for her.

This book is aimed at the interested casual reader. But if you're in advertising, public relations, sales, or (God forbid) politics, I'd consider this book to be mandatory reading. And that's besides it being fun and interesting.
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