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THE BIOLOGICAL MIND

HOW BRAIN, BODY, AND ENVIRONMENT COLLABORATE TO MAKE US WHO WE ARE

For serious students of neurobiology as well as readers interested in philosophical questions of mind and body.

What is the brain? If you answered by describing what the brain does, then this well-crafted overview may not be your cup of gray matter.

The devil may not make us do things, but peer pressure, illness, addiction, and the health of our wallets certainly do. Jasanoff, the director of the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, begins his account by stating that his chief interest lies more in “what the brain is rather than what it does.” Though he allows some operational description along the way, he arrives at a suitably open-ended definition: the brain is “a transit point for myriad influences that work jointly on us and through us.” So, the brain is an organ that perceives and organizes perception, but there is a difference between brain and mind, a distinction between what is innate in the physical being and what comes in from the outside world. The definition is biologically grounded, and in that regard, one of the fascinating branches of the author’s discussion concerns the evidence for the notion that an organ or tissue transplant might “change a person’s mind or personality” beyond the obvious one of having a new lease on life. The text can get a touch dense, for matters such as “body-wide emotional responses” and “ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage” resist easy reduction to pop science. Still, Jasanoff writes with admirable clarity as he argues that the modern tendency of neuroscience to take a “brain-centered view” that overlooks external sources of behavior can lead to epistemological dead ends. For instance, if the mere fact of having a brain explains all the things we do, can we hold anyone accountable for crime—anyone, that is, other than the brain itself? The question opens onto a consideration of the brain of the mass shooter Charles Whitman, who suddenly seems a timely presence considering all the mischief brains get into these days.

For serious students of neurobiology as well as readers interested in philosophical questions of mind and body.

Pub Date: March 13, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-465-05268-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Basic Books

Review Posted Online: Jan. 8, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...

A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 3, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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