Thursday, July 13, 2006

Book Review: A Mind of Its Own by Cordelia Fine

Your Brain Is Continually Messing With Your Mind

A Mind of Its Own: How your Brain Distorts and Deceives
Cordelia Fine
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006
232 pages. $24.95 hardcover

Do a quick search on the Internet for Cordelia Fine's picture, and you'll find a single shot. Situated among stately grey-bearded professors is a too-grainy, blurred image of a smiling, elf-like young woman, posed before a tacky, tartan-striped background. Given the low quality of the picture, as compared against the color-shaded, well-focused web images of her academic peers, the university must not overly value her presence as a faculty member.

If you too quickly took the bait of my analysis in the previous paragraph without suspicion, then you should likewise take a fast trip to your local bookstore and immediately purchase one of the most engaging books on social psychology and brain function in recent memory. Unfortunately, Fine has convinced me that my memory is probably about as objective as my mother-in-law's child rearing advice. And my memory is not the only worry.

Here is a confession: I giggle when I’m nervous. And it has cost me dearly. Break down and reassemble an M16A2 in some number of seconds while being yelled at. I focused. I failed. Then I giggled. That one cost me professionalized psychic trauma in the mid 1980s. Listen agog to my siblings’ first-person accounts of grandmother’s stroke. I paused. I glanced up. Then I giggled. That one cost me two years of July frost at family reunions in the early 1990s. Just what is it with this Benedict Arnold brain of mine? Fortunately, Fine’s latest work gives a candid and lucid analysis of just when such “inborn mind-bugs” haunt our interactions with others.

The book's chapters unfold according to its thesis which is brutally stated in the last paragraph of its pithy, two-page introduction: "Your brain is vainglorious. It's emotional and immoral. It deludes you. It is pigheaded, secretive, and weak-willed. Oh, and it's also a bigot. This is more than a minor inconvenience." Yes, the truth hurts.

It's moments like this when I miss Descartes' innocent view of a mind which can transparently run reconnaissance on its own tactical operations. In an odd way, however, Fine's project is a redux of Cartesian doubt, yet without presuming an optimistic, transparent a priori understanding of the self. That's what makes her use of the most recent empirical studies in social and behavioral psychology so accursedly effective.

In some ways, reading Fine’s work reminds me of another recently noteworthy book in psychology, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (by Oliver Sacks.) Therein, one is exposed to all manner of psychological mis-functions which, in their own peculiar way, reveal much about the operations of our own minds. What’s different about Fine’s book is that many of the mis-functions of mind are not about damaged brains, but about brains which are perfectly functional. Thus, where in most investigations of psychology the reader is safely removed from the object of study, Fine’s book pulls one in, indeed continually placing the reader into an emotive state which I can only describe as “uncanny.” The whole book is a carefully researched -- and I assure you -- unsparing look into what our biological brain is doing behind our conscious mind’s back.

Even Fine herself confesses that the hammer of the social psychologist lands squarely upon her own family relationships. Part of the clever delivery of the chapter-by-chapter reporting and analysis is how Fine opens each new issue by using a sub-text drawn from her own life. As an example of our brain’s tendency to evade, twist, discount and misinterpret, yea even to make up evidence to retain that ever-satisfying sense of being right, Fine recounts her own four-year battle with her husband on the sublime culinary question of whether spaghetti should be strained with a colander or a sieve. Despite astonishingly lengthy (and apparently heated) discussions over this choice, a reasoned resolution to the matter has not been forthcoming. (I myself have been married nearly twenty years, and have not completely reconciled the issue in my own mind, though it was helpful to have reviewed and subsequently incorporated a new battery of pigheaded justifications for my pet choice of straining implement.) Such an example drawn from common life easily allows Fine to transition into the more academic investigations of such topics as belief polarization, initial impression bias, non-negotiable political commitments, and other related issues of pigheadedness.

While each of the book’s eight chapters nuances some particular distortion and deception of the brain, I was especially impressed by the last--appropriately titled, ‘The Bigoted Brain.’ I knew it was good, since (per my above confession) I giggled regularly even from the first paragraph, which was, true to her writing form, an opening miniature from Fine’s vacation with her husband in Scotland.

With a name like ‘Montgomery’, I’m sure I’m Scottish. Not that I have much, or even good evidence for this, but I like Scottish philosophers a bit too much, and I have, to cite Fine’s words, “a propensity toward thrift.” That is conclusive enough evidence for me. I’ve always desperately wanted to believe it anyway. There are other things I don’t want to believe, however, but I do; and as Fine recounts in case after case of research, the desperation and want thereby falls upon others. It’s that bigoted brain of mine. Don’t misunderstand me. When my crusty, WWII Navy pappy died a few years ago, gathered around his bed were his six Caucasian children: two who married African Americans; one who married a Jew; one who married an Asian; and, two who married Caucasians.

In such a family context, I’ve experienced the kind of frank and direct talk about race relations that would make a United Nations ambassador blush. Even so, Fine’s review of studies concerning bias, prejudice, and race have raised serious concerns even about my own “schemas”, as she calls them, those patterns of thought which provide an efficient means of extracting and interpreting information from a complicated word.

Take just one example: Ply American subjects with racist jokes, recording their responses using a “Ha!Ha!-ometer,” and they are suitably grudging with their humor. But give them some sort of distracting counting/memory task while they rate the jokes, and they will find such humor “much funnier.” In length of job interviews, of assumptions from first impressions, for competency in social evaluation of females -- over and over, Fine slams the hammer squarely upon our brain’s “inability to reflect reality truthfully” under the disadvantages of time, stress, or previous social conditioning. Even if my mind has become egalitarian by long family exposure and honest interchange about prejudice, I am stung by the worry that my brain probably isn’t so virtuous in its evaluations of the other.

As one can see, I’ve been deeply affected by Fine’s work, so there really is no higher compliment I could pay her. In a word, the overall quality of this book is best stated by reference to its author's last name: it is indeed Fine.


At 9:03 AM, Blogger brinticus said...

*this review appears in the July issue of Science and Theology News.


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