Physicist Mlodinow (Physics/Caltech; The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, 2008, etc.) takes a wide-ranging look at some of the mysteries of the unconscious mind.
As with his previous books, the author aims to make complex scientific concepts accessible to non-scientists. Here he samples a wide variety of studies and anecdotes from the 19th century to the present day, exploring the behaviors humans engage in without being aware of what they are doing. Because so many actions that affect our senses, memories, social interactions and self-image occur unconsciously, “the real reasons behind our judgments, feelings, and behavior can surprise us.” A 2005 study, for example, found that people tend to unconsciously eat larger amounts of popcorn, regardless of its quality, if they receive a larger container of it. In another study, test subjects reacted differently to computerized voices depending on whether they sounded male or female, with subjects showing profound but unconscious gender biases. In a loose, easygoing style, Mlodinow combines numerous accounts of scientific studies with pop-culture references and even personal anecdotes. While many of his topics are fascinating individually, the author tries to cover too much ground in just over 200 pages. Among dozens of other subjects, he writes about the early history of psychology, experiments with a blind stroke victim, a horse named Clever Hans, the inaccuracies of the testimony of Watergate figure John Dean and his own mother’s relationship with her pet Russian tortoise. Ultimately, the book never full coheres, and the reader comes away with little concrete insight into the unconscious—save that it is a subject full of mystery.
A diverting but scattershot examination of undeniably intriguing aspects of human behavior.