I’ve come to see this book as a handy little owner’s manual for anyone with a brain. In an entertaining and highly readable style, Cordelia Fine has synthesized a host of cognitive research to show that our minds often give us a much more distorted picture of reality than any of us would imagine. Our brains, it seems, are masters of self-deception, engaging in a whole host of hidden activities designed to protect both our fragile egos and our pre-existing beliefs.
While there are benefits to be gained from these distortions, Fine also spells out in detail the price that we pay when we allow our brain to keep us comfortably insulated from information that might otherwise change our minds. In one particularly compelling example, Fine discusses how a doctor discovered that the standard pre-natal practice of giving x-rays to pregnant women doubled the risk that the fetus would go on to develop childhood cancer. Her findings, however, were completely dismissed for decades and millions of children were unnecessarily exposed to x-rays while advocates of the procedure vigorously denied her claims. The techniques these doctors used to defend x-rays in the face of mounting evidence against them shows just how dangerous these self-deceptions can be, not just to us personally, but also to humanity as a whole.
While generally light in tone, Fine’s book is very comprehensive in that each chapter outlines a specific technique of distortion used in the brain, discusses the research used to discover that process, and talks about the impact of that technique in everyday life. Many of the subjects she discusses will be very familiar to anyone dealing with cultic issues. In “The Deluded Brain,” Fine reveals research that shows how we will rewrite personal history in order to fit with our expectations. This chapter has major implications for anyone who has ever spent time and money on a spiritual or self-help path. In “The Immoral Brain,” Fine reveals the part of us that is programmed to blame others for their misfortunes so that we might feel less fear that those same misfortunes could befall us. This chapter goes a long way towards explaining how die-hard believers in “The Secret” could adopt the morally reprehensible position that the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks “attracted” their misfortune through their own negative thinking.
While it can be disturbing to realize just how far removed from reality we often are, Fine also provides information on how we can use our brains’ natural tendencies to overcome some of its more damaging handicaps. Her examination of how disciplined dieters transcend temptation and how those who work with the disadvantaged combat the brain’s natural inclination towards bigoted stereotypes show that we do not, in fact, have to be at the mercy of our unconscious processes. At a time when the national debate on controversial issues often seems to be more about who can shout the loudest than genuinely trying to come to an understanding of opposing positions, I think pretty much everyone could benefit from reading this book.