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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Dean Buonomano is the author of Your Brain Is a Time Machine and Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape Our Lives. A neuroscientist and professor at UCLA, and a leading theorist of the neuroscience of time, he lives in Los Angeles, California. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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.
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.
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.
When Dean Buonomano named his book Brain Bugs he associated the human mind with computer glitches, an unfortunate irony because one of the first points he made was how different real thinking is from computing. The subtitle is "How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives," and the book is an excellent companion to Dan Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow, and Steve Pinker's How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought.
I was once tricked for a while by a robotic "salesperson" on my home phone. I thought I was talking to a person, but it was just a clever recording with pauses. And who hasn't been playful with the iphone's Siri? But people can be nearly tricked into thinking a computer is human, the opposite is far from true. It's embarrassing how easy it would be to write a test to determine if something were truly a computer -- just ask what 18 is raised to the power of 12. Computers are excellent at digital calculation where we - through evolution - are masters at recognizing patterns; our brilliance is sensing the whole from the parts. As Buonomano puts it, the organic brain is like a fresh computer out of the box, containing both hardware and an operating system. We're all wired with the same drives and emotions but because our bodies had to survive in a shifting environment, the operating system evolved the ability to learn. "The result is not a fixed balance, but a set of rules that allowed nurture to modulate our nature." (p 15)
The book's core question is this: "to what extent is the neural operating system established by evolution well-tuned for the digital, predator-free, sugar-abundant, special effects-filled, antiobiotic-laden, media saturated, densely populated world we have managed to build for ourselves." The answer is "Not very well." We have false memories, weak numerical skills, a distorted sense of time, large blind spots, we are predisposed to certain fears, our opinions are easily manipulated and we are inclined to be satisfied with supernatural explanations.
When it's supported with research (and this book is quite well footnoted), I really like a simple explanation with reach: one that explains a lot of things. The mind, he said, is basically comprised of a network of associations. When I think "dog" I easily recall my dog, cats, dogfood, doghair, the beach,, the vacuum, my first dog, her vet, my youth, and so on. Some links are well connected and fire frequently, others have looser connections, and many are more or less out there on their own. The analogy is the Internet, where it's easy to map the connectivity of any node If you search for "Chicago USA" you get 169m hits; "La Paz Bolivia" returns 3.1m and "Iringa Tanzania" returns just 151k. This is not just an analogy, it is basically how the brain is strung - the neurons (nodes) store information and whenever they fire together the synapses associating them get a little stronger. "Neurons that fire together, wire together." Interestingly, the "read" operations and the "write" operations both strengthen the association so as you commit something to memory OR as you recall it, the associations become more fixed.
Look to advertisers or politicians for good examples of how this works. A devious candidate may hurt a relatively unknown opponent with sheer fabrications: A headline: "Is Mark Peters corrupt?" will tie corruption (and all its nasty connotations) with Peters in our synapses. We may not even know this is happening. Years ago a famous presidential campaign ad flashed the word "rats" while showing his opponent's picture.
There's a whole lot in the memory chapter. People remember that someone is a baker more easily than they will remember that their name is Baker - more images and connections simply come to mind with the occupation than the surname.
Those who can recall strings of 1,000 numbers rely heavily on associations. One elaborate system assigns a person, an action, and an object to each number 1 - 1,000 to take advantage of pattern separation. "George Carlin swimming" is very different from "Martha Washington's doberman." The numbers 235,694 and 749,209 just feel a lot more similar.
There is adrenaline-induced flashbulb memories, like a good scare can do. There is drug-induced memory loss during the important period of consolidation. Memories are often overwritten, so a witness may confidently identify the wrong person just by selecting the best choice from a lineup, or by being influenced by suggestive questioning. There is no "memory delete" module; no effortful "forgetting." Yet, oddly, there is some evidence that activating an old memory can actually make it vulnerable to erasure or overwriting because the read/write operations are so closely associated.
There is a chapter on errors about our sense of body. Minds are housed in the brain, so it's interesting that we each have a sense of body as me. Certainly the body is necessary to reproduce, but why is there body consciousness? "Evolution has not only ensured that the brain has access to the information from our peripheral devices, but that it endowed us with conscious awareness of these devices. As you lay awake in the dark your brain does not simply verbally report the position of your left arm it goes all out and generates a sense of ownership by projecting the feeling of your arm into the extracranial world." (93) We've all heard of the mind recreating a limb which has been amputated but, in a sense, all our limbs are phantom.
There is an auditory corollary in the ringing many people hear when they start to lose their hearing for the same pitch. It's a phantom sound. Neurologically, the body is laid out in the brain such that adjacent body parts correspond to adjacent brain parts, so when there is a deficit adjacent neighbor neurons and synapses can patch it over.
An excellent chapter on time discussed how we perceive and measure time, how we relate to sequence and delay, and how temporal discounting causes us to make poor choices between short and long term consequences. We don't have a sense of time like we do, say, temperature. We know how hot feels, but how does 4 years feel? Actually, it depends. Time seems shorter when we are paying close attention to something, and may change in felt duration depending on whether it is in the future present or past. For example a hectic day may just fly by, but then looking back it seemed like a long one, judging by how much occurred.
A weird one, for me, was that when we observe something noisy in the distance the brain actually slows down the visual signal so it matches the sound, which travels more slowly. Studies verify this, I'm told.
There's more about time than I have time for and the next chapter, on fear, had a fascinating bit: Some fears are innate; goslings fear hawks, humans fear angry faces. Some are learned; we fear losing our jobs. Others are something in between. I'd known that chimpanzees are not innately afraid of snakes (babies will play with them), but by watching the reactions of other chimps they can easily catch a lifelong terror of them. They can't do the same for, say, rabbits or flowers. The author speculates (with some support) that humans may have a similar predisposition to fear strangers -- not particular strangers, but those which we are taught to fear early on. We're born fearing strangers, we just need to have them pointed out to us. I just find that depressing. It's not all bad though, because by creating an "other," we create an "us," and those within one's own smaller community primates were able to benefit from mutual reciprocal altruism. It was a very clever solution when we lived amongst murderous marauders.
The chapter on unreasonable reasoning delves into the same territory Dan Kahneman covered: framing, anchoring, overconfidence, loss aversion, the availability bias, conjunction fallacy: all good stuff. And then there is the problem of emotions. Since the amygdala has more connections heading to the cortical area than the other way around, emotions (amygdala) easily overwhelm reason (cortex), leading to all sorts of irrational decisions.
Here is a fun little demonstration of our poor grasp of probabilities: In Let's Make a Deal, Monty Hall presented contestants with three rooms, one held a large prize and two had a goat. The contestants were asked to choose a door, after which Hall opened one of the others, revealing a goat, and then he offered to let the contestant switch or hold. Some switched, some held; why would switching even matter? Many people had trouble figuring that out, even though a world cruise or new home was at stake. As Buonomano put it "we are inept at making probability judgments."
(answer: always, always switch)
His chapter on Advertising recounted how De Beers turned the flagging diamond industry around with the slogan "diamonds are forever," thereby creating an expensive engagement essential. And by associating them with personal, unending love, De Beers guaranteed a continued demand for NEW diamonds. Very clever. So by associating a product with something we already value, advertisers build the synapse connections, they take advantage of our natural tendency to imitate peers and those of higher status, and they activate our mirror neurons so we actually feel successful, like in the ad. Advertisers use loss aversion with free trials, and the "money illusion" to make something appear more valuable by charging more. So a sweater selling for $30 as "half off" makes it look like a great deal on a better sweater. But it's just a $30 sweater.
Another clever trick is using a "decoy," a product that is much like another but just a little worse. It could be less somehow, or may be overpriced. Either way, the decoy will drive up sales for the other one. For example, an overpriced shrimp dish on the menu will get more people to buy the regular shrimp meal. If there are two identical cars on the lot except one comes with remote ignition, it will sell better than if the other car wasn't there. That's pathetic, but it's nice to know why it happens. First, while it's so difficult to compare apples and oranges that it can lead to terminal indecision, it's easy to compare a bruised apple to a good one. Clear choice, problem solved. Second, "apple" becomes a more salient idea altogether; after all, you've just seen two of them, and only one orange.
The chapter on superstition, and the conclusion were shorter, thinner, a little disappointing, but I'd already gotten well enough to be satisfied.