Book review

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me)

Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions and Hurtful Acts

By Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson

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Many people (but obviously not me) find it difficult to admit to their mistakes. This book explains why (although clearly it doesn’t apply to me, because I’m not like that), illustrating its points with some great examples, and explaining the experimentally-verified underlying psychological tendencies. Most important is the concept of cognitive dissonance: how we (well you lot, anyway, I’m too smart to do it) will resolve the conflict between our view of ourselves as fundamentally honest and right-minded, and any actions we may have taken that aren’t quite as honest or sensible as they might have been:

“Most people, when directly confronted by evidence that they are wrong, do not change their point of view or plan of action but justify it even more tenaciously.”

We are terrifically good at this, too. Over time we will nudge our memories so they align better with how we wish things had gone, we tell half-truths to others that we come to fully believe are justified, and maybe even actually a more realistic version of what happened. And we do all this entirely unconsciously – our minds are just seeking to resolve this cognitive dissonance, and do it all for us without our awareness. For example, talking of the first Gulf war and the invasion of Iraq:

“Before the invasion, about 46 percent of Democrats supported it; by 2006, only 21 percent remembered having done so. Just before the war, 72 percent of Democrats said they thought Iraq had WMDs, but later, only 26 percent remembered having believed this.”

Mostly we do this to make ourselves feel better, but actually it’s about reinforcing whatever our self image is. If you are that way inclined, and you have a negative image of yourself, you will reinforce that view. “Yes, I won the Pulitzer prize, but it was just a fluke, I’ll never write anything half as good again”, these people would tell themselves – quite sincerely believing it.

While we may have noticed this inclination in others, the authors are at pains to point out that we all do it – they give various annecdotes about how they did just this on one occasion or another.

“The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on its owner the comforting delusion that he or she does not have any.”

The worst aspect of this isn’t what it may do to our individual lives, but how it can play out on a larger canvas. Several chapters are given over to examples in our courts or in our political system where the implications have included everything from wrongful imprisonment of innocent people of decades, to children taken away from their parents, to corruption, to thousands of deaths in wars or accidents.

Even when we think we are certain we are not doing it this time, we may still be doing it:

“The weakness of the relationship between accuracy and confidence is one of the best-documented phenomena in the 100-year history of eyewitness memory research”

How or why do we do this? One plausible explanation is that we tend to view things that people do as due to either the situation, or due to an innate tendency on their part. When we make mistakes, this is due to the situation – I bumped into you because I was rushing to get somewhere. When others make mistakes, all too often we blame it on their character: they bumped into me because they are just plain rude. This is the so-called “fundamental attribution error”, and again, we may see it in others much more easily than we see it in ourselves.

The final chapter talks a little about how we might get better at spotting these problems in ourselves. If I had one complaint about this book, it’s about how short this section is. The advice is basically “now you know it’s a risk, you can be on the lookout for it, and catch yourself doing it”. True, I’m sure, but how, and what else might we do as well?

I shall give the last word to George Orwell, who the authors quote as putting the whole thing quite magnificently thus:

“We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”

Book review

What Matters Most

Living a More Considered Life

by James Hollis

What Matters Most by James Hollis

There’s an awful lot to like about this book, but it’s not a straightforward read. Hollis seems to relish obscure words and his text isn’t always easy to parse: as Benjamin Disraeli once said of William Gladstone, he seems at times almost “inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity”. Having said which, it’s a style thing, and it perhaps made me slow down my reading and forced me to engage more with the meaning, which was all to the good, as there’s a lot to engage with here.

When I started reading, I knew nothing of Hollis, nor of his other books, so I didn’t realise that he was by trade a distinguished psychoanalyst in the Jungian tradition. This soon becomes evident, as a lot of the book centres around the kinds of myths by which we live our lives, and the potential to transform ourselves (or at least our view of ourselves) by engaging with those myths:

“We are all exiles, whether we know it or not, for who among us feels truly, vitally linked to the four great orders of mystery: the cosmos, nature, the tribe, and self?”

I was new to a lot of this, and really enjoyed the discussion. It’s about how you confront the world:

“The dragon shows up every day, no worse for the wear, and ready to scare you back into a corner of your life, to swallow you, and to annihilate the life energy you are supposed to incarnate in this world.”

That’s our challenge, then. We must continue to show up, to face our difficulties, our boredom, our anxieties, and to live so our “daily discipline becomes: That Life Not Be Governed by Fear”. Scattered throughout the book are anecdotes taken from Hollis’s clients, which speak to these deep concerns and to the undercurrents of our lives:

Angela walks away from her marriage of twenty years. Safe, secure, valued by all, including her husband, she walks away. Why? When asked, she mumbles, “I wanted to know that I wasn’t dead yet.”

It’s about understanding our anxieties and our neurosis. Our daily lives tend to become “anxiety management systems”, but are to deeply buried that we don’t even know that this is what we’re doing, nor quite the extent to which we’re doing it. None of which is easy. In fact, in many ways it wasn’t meant to be easy – and anyone who tells you different is selling somehting:

“Why do we have psychologists in the media who conveniently fail to verify the contradictions with which we all daily live, the necessary suffering that is a by-product of real life, rather than suggest that three easy steps will bring us happiness and material affluence

Ultimately, we must become larger people – “step into largeness”, living life by verbs (actions we take), not nouns (things we own, or static truths). Or we can choose not to do that, and live instead on the scraps from the tables of other lives, which we falsely imagine somehow to be more meaningful than our own:

“The world is full of people droning on, sitting before the telly or the Internet, waiting to die, living only for small sensations of scandal or vicarious catastrophe that they can witness from afar.”

It’s our choice, though. Growth, or security – you can’t have both. It’s clear which Hollis is striving for, and although he offers us no “ten steps” or “twelve rules”, no map at all, he perhaps is offering us a compass that will give us our heading, as we cross whatever terrain our lives hold.

Book review

Breaking The Spell

Religion As A Natural Phenomenon

by Daniel C. Dennett


This is an thorough and well-argued review from Daniel Dennett of the ways in which religions might have emerged as natural phenomena in early humans, and how the pressures of evolution on this new set of social constructs might have then produced many of the traits we see in today’s religions.

His argument adds important elements to a pure psychological view of religion, although it certainly starts there. In the early chapters, Dennett argues that humans have what he calls an “intentional stance”: that in order to best predict the world, we tend to think of things in the world as rational agents, and figure out the desires, and thus the actions, of that agent. This works brilliantly for other humans, and it works pretty well for the animals that early humans might need to hunt or escape. Thus it’s easy for us to see how we might extend the same logic to other things – the weather, diseases, and so forth. From this, we can see how we might have grown to attribute apparently random changes in (say) the weather to an unseen entity behind the weather itself, and to then see the changes in the weather as reflecting true intentions of that entity. If you want to get it to rain, therefore, it makes perfect sense to try and communicate with the entity behind it, and to get the entity to cause it to rain. We attribute “agency” to the weather, and it makes sense then to try and bargain with the agent.

(As I write this, we’re in lockdown due to the COVID-19 epidemic, and this desire to treat the disease as an entity with intentions, capricious or malignant though they might be, is very visible in the way many people talk about it.)

From here, Dennett grows the argument. Everything we value, or are fearful of, we value or fear for reasons. This view of the world gives us challenges in everyday living, which early folk religions enabled us to handle, psychologically. Once in the culture, these folk religions were susceptible to the same evolutionary pressures – this time at the level of “memes” that thrive or die out – as humans themselves, only many many times faster that physical evolution. Only the best variants of these beliefs will propagate – and “best” means most successful in meeting our deep psychological and physical needs.

As human societies grew, specialised intercessors to these agents emerged (“shamans”, he calls them for convenience). Dennett goes on to suggest that these shamans, and others, had time to become more reflective, and so from these early folk religions, organized religions began to emerge. Sometimes, the simple beliefs in the folk religions were bolstered or even entirely replaced by carefully crafted reasoning. At this point, it might have become necessary to put some of these religious views out of the reach of “gnawing skepticism”, as Dennett puts it. This leads to an interesting way of splitting the world:

“This winnowing has the effect of sequestering a special subset of cultural items behind the veil of systematic invulnerability to disproof – a pattern found just about everywhere in human societies. As many have urged, this division into the propositions that are designed to be immune to disconfirmation and all the rest looks like a hypothetical joint at which we could well carve nature. Right here, they suggest, is where (proto-)science and (proto-)religion part company”

Dennett rightly spends a fair while on this point. Is it right that we treat religion, by definition, as “systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation? … No religion lacks these effects, and anything that lacks them is not really a religion, however much it is like a religion in other regards.” Dennett rightly points out that this view wasn’t shared by the shamans themselves: if they saw they were losing their flock to the shaman down the road, they were quite prepared to take on new approaches and ideas – to evolve. So one of the important features that emerged as folk religion merged and became organized religions was this secrecy and systematic invulnerability to disconfirmation.

Now we see Dennett broaden the view out from the leaders to the groups who also believed. He sees this as in many cases an entirely rational decision to join on the part of individuals, who would see benefits from being part of a group regardless of possible supernatural benefits from the gods themselves. There are also many possible psychological benefits in belief, but there is a darker side as well – tribalism in humans is very often reinforced by conflict, and the tendency of religions to spark conflicts and wars from prehistory to the modern day is terrifying. Of course it could be argued that they were being co-opted by pre-existing power structures, but none the less the features of very many religions do seem to be shaped, and often thrive, on conflict.

At this point, Dennett spends a while talking about “belief in belief”. This, he argues, is a very powerful force, in religions and elsewhere, and can completely transform them. For example, he points out that many feel it’s important to maintain the belief in democracy, regardless of its flaws. So we tend to play down the flaws and play up the benefits, and in doing so lose track of the logic which may (or may not) support the arguments for its value. Similarly with science – we may believe in science, we may believe that “e=mc2”, without knowing (or caring) how it is so. None the less, we believe! And, he argues, the same is true of religions. Even very devout followers may not share identical views on details of doctrine, and many lay believers will turn out to have quite different interpretations of major points. But it doesn’t matter – what matters is that they all share the belief in the importance of their beliefs.

Finally, Dennett looks at religions today. He starts to talk about whether religion is, all things considered, a good thing. Is religion good for people, he asks? There is definitely evidence that belonging to religious organisations can improve the morale, and hence the health, of participants. Believers would also argue that the meaning it gives their lives is immeasurably valuable. More specific experiments, for example on the benefits of “intercessory prayer”, give mixed results, and include at least one notorious case of academic fraud. Finally, almost all religious people see their religion as the foundation of their morality. On this point, Dennett comments

“I have uncovered no evidence to support the claim that people, religious or not, who don’t believe in reward in heaven and/or punishment in hell are more likely to kill, rape, rob, or break their promises than people who do. The prison population in the United States shows Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others – including those with no religious affiliation – represented about as they are in the general population … Indeed, the evidence to date support the hypothesis that atheists have the lowest divorce rates in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest.”

There is a lot I really liked about this book. The arguments are thorough, carefully constructed, and evidence is sought wherever possible. Some technical material is present in appedices, a couple of which I found useful I am, I should point out, not a religious believer of any creed, although I do think that there is a deep human need (which I feel) for the spiritual, and so I can’t comment on how a theist would have felt. I hope they would have been able to read the arguments through to the end, and Dennett I feel does a good job of presenting the best arguments on both sides.

There were a few irritations, for me at least. The very first chapter or two nearly caused me to give up, as Dennett spends an entirely unnecessary (for me) amount of time justifying the whole enterprise. He’s also very fond of italics to emphasise key words in his paragraphs, and sometimes this is perhaps too heavy handed. But it’s a forgiveable style. Four and a half stars, rounded up to five on final consideration.

Book review

The Case Against Reality

How Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes

by Donald D. Hoffman

The Case Against Reality by Donald D. Hoffman

There’s a lot to like in Donald Hoffman’s book. He carefully marshals a number of strands of experimental and mathematical evidence to lend weight to his claim that, ultimately, it is extremely implausible that our experience of reality in any way corresponds to how reality actually is. This is a very bold claim, and I found the thought experiment of thinking this through to be very interesting, even if ultimately I was unconvinced by the core argument.

Hoffman has spent his professional career thinking about this problem, and he’s build a very interesting view based upon it. He doesn’t deny the existence of a shared “consensual” reality – that you see what looks to you like a chair and a table, and I see the same. Instead, he denies that the chair and table exist in anything like the form we think they exist in – as three dimensional medium-sized objects. Indeed, he denies they exist at all when we’re not looking at them. Instead, our perception of them causes them to appear in our “user interface” for the world.

One of his most powerful metaphors is this “interface theory of perception”. This says that our experience of reality is rather like the graphical user interface of a computer: the rectangular object on the screen which we click on to open a file isn’t, actually, anything at all like the file really is in the computer – where it exists as a series of variations in charge or magnetic field on a solid state or spinning disk, and what looks like a file opening on the desktop is actually the cumulative action of millions of transistor state changes.

To convince us that what we think of as the world really is not at all what we think it is, Hoffman brings in a number of pieces of evidence. He spends a fair amount of time on our visual system. Here he brings together a number of visual illusions to show quite the depth of processing – with a corresponding opportunity for errors – that happens between photons striking our retina, and our perception of a chair, or a colour, or a beautiful person. This is entirely convincing to me: it’s clear that a vast amount of detail of what we might perceive is both hidden from us, and also filled in by informed guesswork by various networks in our brain.

Hoffman also points to modern physics, where quantum mechanics really does tell us some apparently strange things are happening out there. Photons from distant galaxies, millions of years in transit to us, apparently have their entire history affected by actions we take now. I feel there are other stories that we might tell about all this – from Everett’s multi-world hypothesis on upwards. Hoffman doesn’t dwell on these, but instead uses them as another explosion under our foundational belief that the world is what it looks like.

Hoffman also has some mathematics behind all of this. He has a model of consciousness – as a set of Markovian kernels (basically, things that choose amongst outcomes with different probabilities). And he also has what he calls the “Fitness Beats Truth” theorem. In this he pits mathematical creatures which prefer “fitness” against those which prefer “truth”. Given such a construction, in the framework of the game theory he uses, it’s no wonder that the creatures which prefer fitness tend to out-compete those which prefer truth: he defines fitness as the most important thing in his framework, so of course such creatures win. For me, this doesn’t really answer the question of why, in the real world, fitness wouldn’t more or less track truth. Isn’t a creature which depends on features of the landscape as they actually exist – i.e., a creature for whom fitness broadly corresponds to the state of the world – out-evolve a creature whose fitness was ultimately a fantasy? That’s why we haven’t all become addicted to the chemicals in the world which give us the most pleasure – because ultimately, fitness needs to track back to useful features of the world, rather than the ecstasy of a drug.

Despite my reservations, I did enjoy the book, and the arguments I had with it. I’d give it three and a half stars, rounded down to three for fighting too many paper tigers, rather than steel-man arguments against his position.

Book review

On Human Nature

by Edward O. Wilson

On Human Nature by Edward O. Wilson

A really important and profound book on how we’re a social species, and that although our overall nature is significantly shaped by environment (mostly culture), the set of possible shapes that our nature might take is still profoundly constrained by our genetics. We are not a blank slate at all, despite what some sociologists might claim. Instead, we can:

“hope to decide more judiciously which of the elements of human nature to cultivate and which to subvert, which to take open pleasure with and which to handle with care. We will not, however, eliminate the hard biological substructure until such time, many years from now, when our descendants may learn to change the genes themselves.”

To investigate the limits of genetics, and the flexibility of the human responses to it, Wilson looks at four of the “elemental categories of behavior”: aggression, sex, altruism, and religion.

On aggression, for example, Wilson leaves no doubt that our genetics are those of an aggressive primate, while our culture has striven to remove most of it from our societies.

“Throughout history, warfare, representing only the most organized technique of aggression, has been endemic to every form of society, from hunter-gatherer bands to industrial states … Virtually all societies have invented elaborate sanctions against rape, extortion, and murder, while regulating their daily commerce through complex customs and laws designed to minimize the subtler but inevitable forms of conflict. Most significantly of all, the human forms of aggressive behavior are species-specific: although basically primate in form, they contain features that distinguish them from aggression in all other species.”

In response to those who point to the tiny minority of societies that appear to be pacific, Wilson asks us to look at even their history.

“Among contemporary !Kung San, violence in adults is almost unknown … But as recently as fifty years ago, when these Bushman populations were denser and less rigidly controlled by the central government, their homicide rate per capita equaled that of Detroit and Houston”

None of this is to deny our ability to overcome our genetic tendencies. But first we must recognize that they exist, and the patterns through which they show up in our societies.

“Our brains do appear to be programmed to the following extent: we are inclined to partition other people into friends and aliens … We tend to fear deeply the actions of strangers and to solve conflict by aggression …. (These) learning rules of violent aggression are largely obsolete. We are no longer hunter-gatherer who settle disputes with spears, arrows, and stone axes. But to acknowledge the obsolescence of the rules is not to banish them …. We must consciously undertake those difficult and rarely traveled pathways in psychological development that lead to master over and reduction of the profound human tendency to learn violence.”

This same style of treatment is given to the other topics. For sex, for example, we start with why there are genders at all – and why two of them, versus the thousands of genders in some fungi, or the haplodiploid arrangement of some bees, wasps and ants. From there, we look at what sexual differences seem to genetically exist in humans, and why they might have evolved. His treatment of homosexuality is very sympathetic for the time it was written (1978), and is generally directed towards potential kin-selection benefits of a predisposition to homosexuality, which is perhaps a little dated, but not too far away from my understanding of contemporary views.

Perhaps only in the final chapter, entitled Hope, do I find myself disappointed. Not with Wilson, but with humankind. Wilson’s view is that a correct application of evolutionary theory would uphold three core values: the nobility of the individual (benefiting humankind over their own individual genes), diversity in the gene pool (to allow enough room for human brilliance across any field to emerge), and universal human rights (because power is fluid in our societies in the long term, and any long-term inequity will be visibly dangerous to its temporary beneficiaries). Perhaps he is right, and we’re just not there yet!

Wilson writes all this in 1978; I read a copy of the 25th anniversary edition from the early 2000s, but the subject matter is still just as important today. And very little of it is dated. 4.75 stars, rounded up to 5 for brilliance of exposition.


Mind in Motion

How Action Shapes Thought

Mind in Motion by Barbara Tversky

This was a intriguing book in two ways: first, the subject matter was fascinating, which wasn’t a surprise as that’s why I was reading it, but secondly, I found the prose style delightful. I’ll come back to this later: let’s start with the contents.

It’s all about spatial thinking, and how the way space itself – via gestures, and the metaphors we derive from it – shape the very fundamentals of the way we think. Abstract thinking isn’t “abstract” at all – it’s based on spatial metaphors. We don’t think with words inside our head, we think in (abstract) space in there.

From a personal point of view, this really struck a chord. I was a mathematician and then a computer programmer, and still play with both, and in these worlds I almost always find myself thinking spatially about problems, imagining I’m moving this variable or data structure from here to there, or twisting it in some way to change its form or use. Spatial thinking, Barbara Tversky contends, enables us to draw meaning from our bodies and their actions in the world.

One of the excellent things about this book is that it’s all based in experiment. Hundreds of different experiments underpin the picture that is painted herein, with practical applications everywhere from things that are obviously spatial – how to draw better assembly instructions or navigation instructions – through the physically laid out – comic strips – to the abstract – how to come up with a larger variety of original designs.

As I said, I also came to love the prose style of Barbara Tversky. It beautifully combines short sentences, long sentences, simple words, technical jargon, sentence fragments, lists, the whole gamut, in such an elegant and rhythmic way. Here’s a random example, where she’s talking about tree diagrams:

“The enormity of the influence of tree diagrams on the accumulation and dissemination f knowledge has not been fully recognized. Trees, knowledge, brain. By now their uses are uncountable and their visualizations myriad. The Big Bang, phylogenetic trees, corporate trees, occupational trees, decision trees, diagnostic trees, linguistic trees, knowledge trees, probability trees, family trees, the list goes on. And on.”

All in all, a great book. Four and a half stars.

Book review

Darkness Visible

A Memoir of Madness

by William Styron

Darkness Visible by William Styron

This is a dark book, written from a place of nightmares that so many visit, and from which the fortunate might return. In it, William Styron, an author of some considerable skill, writes grippingly of his personal experience with depression. It’s a remarkable book, made all the more remarkable by the skill of the author – for the man can write. Here he is, near the start of this slim volume, in the car on the way to collect an prestigious literary award at a ceremony in Paris:

…it was past four o’clock and my brain had begun to endure its familiar siege: panic and dislocation, and a sense that my thought processes were being engulfed by a toxic and unnameable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world. This is to say more specifically that instead of pleasure – certainly instead of the pleasure I should be having in this sumptuous showcase of bright genius – I was feeling in my mind a sensation close to, but indescribably different from, actual pain.

This is a book from a place I have never been. Reading it was as much of an immersion in a different world for me as Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. I have no personal experience of depression – I am about as annoyingly chipper as it’s possible to be (on the Big Five personality traits, I am at the first percentile on the neuroticism score – through no moral virtue on my part, I assure you, just luck in both genetics and lack of childhood trauma).

However, I read a second-hand copy of this book, and throughout it, a previous reader had marked certain passages with bright red crosses and underlines. This previous reader was my Margaret Mead: here was my guide to these difficult experiences, of which we still know so little. We don’t know how it starts, we rarely known why – and whether – it ends. Styron says:

I shall never learn what “caused” my depression, as no one will ever learn about their own. To be able to do so will likely forever prove to be an impossibility, so complex are the intermingled factors of abnormal chemistry, behaviour and genetics. Plainly, multiple components are involved – perhaps three or four, most probably more, in fathomless permutations.

As the author’s depression grows, his world folds in on itself and becomes darker still. He reads obsessively about the disease:

It has been established with reasonable certainty (after strong resistance from many psychiatrists, and not all that long ago) that such madness is chemically induced amid the neurotransmitters of the brain, probably as the result of systemic stress, which for unknown reasons causes a depletion of the chemicals norepinephrine and serotonin, and the increase of a hormone, cortisol. Will all this upheaval in the brain tissues, the alternate drenching and deprivation, it is no wonder that the mind begins to feel aggrieve, stricken, and the muddied thought processes register the distress of an organ in convulsion.

Many people find relief with various pharmacological treatments, but the author discovers that his particular version of the disease is resistant to the standard drugs, and even, somewhat alarmingly, finds eventually that the one he has been prescribed to help with his sleep is strongly contra-indicated for men of his age.

Eventually, in this hellscape, Styron’s thoughts become blacker still.

What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are totally remote from normal experience, the fray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the diabolic discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room. And because no breeze stirs this cauldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.

Styron becomes suicidal, and the margins of my copy gain further red crossings – this passage had two such notations:

The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come – not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul.

Curiously, it is Styron’s own skill as a writer that saves him in the end. He sets out to write a suicide note one night in December, his loving and supportive wife asleep upstairs, but finds the words will not come. He cannot write to his own satisfaction, tears up the note, and in the middle of the night, wrapped in a blanket (the furnace is out), puts on a tape of a movie. In it, he hears a soaring contralto voice singing Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody. He is seized by the music, and the memories it brings of happier times

All this I realized was more than I could ever abandon, even as what I had set out so deliberately to do was more than I could inflict on those memories, and upon those, so close to me, with whom the memories were bound. And just as powerfully I realized I could not commit this desecration on myself. I drew some last gleam of sanity to perceive the terrifying dimensions of the mortal predicament I had fallen into. I woke up my wife and soon telephone calls were made. The next day I was admitted to the hospital.

Slowly, but surely, Styron does recover. He knows he may have remissions, but he also knows that with the right help, the illness will again run its course. And my anonymous guide, of the red markings? I saw, with some relieve, their mark beside the final lines:

There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair.
I give this book five stars.

Book review

Reaching Down the Rabbit Hole

Extraordinary Journeys into the Human Brain

by Allan H. Ropper


This is a fascinating behind the scenes peek into the neurology unit at Harvard Medical School, and the work there of Dr. Allan Ropper. It’s about real lives, and it’s all the more poignant for that – from people diagnosed with ALS, to minute brain injuries that cause bizarre behaviours, any number of the extremes that we could each fall into, that are ultimately caused by mis-wirings, mis-firings, or damage to our brains.

At ever turn, Dr. Ropper appears knowledgeable, intuitive, willing to listen, and empathic. These are real people he’s talking to, not anonymous patients, and his care and attention to detail comes across at every turn.

If you liked “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat”, there are many more such stories in here. But ultimately, for me, it was the humanity that came across – of both the author, and, ultimately, of his patients. We are all a ticking clock of immense complexity, and if dust bunnies stick a cog or two in all of us, the it’s just luck, not our moral right, that means we can still scrape through.

Book review


A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind

by Annaka Harris

Conscious by Annaka Harris

This is a brief introduction to the mysteries of consciousness, with much to commend it. It starts a conventional definition, after Thomas Nagel: “An organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism”. From this starting point, Annaka Harris takes us via an interesting series of viewpoints to a view of consciousness that she acknowledges isn’t really the mainstream view – that of “pan-psychism”, which is that consciousness may be an inherent quality of matter even down to the smallest levels – electrons may be, in some tiny atomic way, conscious. From these small components, consciousness as we know and experience it as humans is produced.

The route to this conclusion covers some ground that may be familiar to many readers, such as David Chalmers’ “philosophical zombies” – people who look and act exactly like you or I, but who (by definition) do not have conscious experiences. It also covers some territory that was new to me, such as the discussion about trees and how they seem to communicate via their roots tapping into underground mycorrhizal networks. This was fascinating to me, and lead me off to all sorts of interesting searches – this was a nice summary I found.

The argument is overall well put, but I felt there were difficulties that had either been skipped for simplicity, or simply weren’t acknowledged. For example, Harris says that “as far as consciousness is concerned, there is nothing, then suddenly, magically, at just the right moment …. something!”. It’s not clear to me that this has to be the case. Introspectively, I am conscious at some moments to a greater degree than others. When I fall into a deep sleep, does my consciousness finally switch off at a defined point, or is it more like sunset on a cloudy day: it gets darker and darker, and eventually it’s definitely completely dark, but there was no one moment when the last light was extinguished. It seems to me consciousness is more like this – continuous, not discrete. And if the claim is that it’s discrete, I’d hope for a discussion of the point.

As another example, one of the traditional arguments against panpsychism is discussed in the book – the “combination problem”:

The problem is that this is very difficult to make sense of: “little” conscious subjects of experience with their micro-experiences coming together to form a “big” conscious subject with its own experiences

Harris argues that this problem isn’t present in versions of panpsychism in which consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe, as consciousness is not interacting with “itself”, as it would be if it were combining. Think of gravity: individual atoms have a tiny amount of mass, and thus of gravitational attraction, and they can combine perfectly happily to produce a large planet with its own gravity.

This argument, it seems to me, can apply just as well to the “emergent” view of consciousness, where consciousness emerges as the appropriate kinds of information processing capabilities combine in an appropriate way. But Harris has already dismissed the possible emergence of consciousness by saying that it doesn’t really explain it at all:

…when scientists assume they have bypassed the hard problem by describing consciousness as an emergent property – that is, a complex phenomenon not predicted by the constituent parts – they are changing the subject …. If some matter has experience and some doesn’t (and some emergent phenomena entail experience and some don’t), the concept of emergence as it is traditionally used in science simply doesn’t explain consciousness.

But simply defining consciousness as something that all matter has, it seems to me, isn’t a good way out of this problem. Announcing that everything has consciousness, down to electrons and protons, and therefore some things get to be what we call conscious, is either a way of hiding from the hard problem (“everything is conscious, so no wonder we are”), or just causes the emergence problem to emerge in a different place (how does what we historically cause consciousness appear from combining a lot of this subatomic consciousness – and you can’t use emergence as you’ve already dismissed this!).

In the end, there was a lot to like about this book, and I found it hard to pick a final star rating. This is a three-and-a-half star book for me. Lots to like, some interesting new ideas, really nice to see a readable book on such a complex issue, although it was too short to do enough justice to all of its subject matter, even for a self-confessed “brief guide”. In the end, I have gone with four stars, to encourage Ms Harris to write more on this, and to guide readers to an interesting book.

Book review

Words That Change Minds

by Shelle Rose Charvet

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A detailed and hands-on look at the different patterns of behaviour that make up the Language And Behaviour (LAB) profile. Each pattern is explained, together with some guide questions that will allow you to determine how the participant fits against the profile. The patterns themselves are derived from NLP, and there has been some good work to establish that they are consistent within particular individuals in a particular context, and also that different interviewers will spot the same patterns in a person.

Understanding the patterns is very useful for a number of things. For example, if you’re interviewing for a particular job, you could usefully think about the characteristics of the job – do you need a creative person, or one who follows processes very well, for example? Each of the patterns will help you think about the role, and give you some very useful questions to ask candidates. Or if you’re selling a product face to face or online, thinking through the characteristics of your intended buyer will help you shape the language you use in the sales pitch. And I first came across the LAB profiles at work, where a consultant interviewed my management team and some of the staff and produced a very helpful set of profiles that allowed us to reshape the organisation to be much more effective.

As a particular example, some people are “towards” motivated, while others are “away” motivated. So when you ask someone why they did something in a particular context (e.g. why they took their current job), if they are “towards” motivated they might say “because of all the great opportunities this job offered”, whereas if they were “away” motivated they might say “because my old boss was quite difficult and I didn’t like the commute”. Both are likely true, but people will focus on one or the other depending on their towards/away inclination in the work context. Some jobs require “away” motivation (health and safety), while others are more suited to “towards” (sales).

Overall this is a very useful practical guidebook more than a pop-psychology book. Having said which, it’s hard to read the patterns and not think about where we might fit on them, and if you are reasonably insightful you’ll make a pretty good guess! My only negative comment would be that I read my copy on a kindle, and the formatting was a bit screwy at times – lots of tables and text boxes, which didn’t always come out perfectly. If I were to need to refer to this book a lot, I would likely buy a paper copy.

Full disclosure: I received a free ARC softcopy of this book. My comments and rating are accurately reflective of what I felt reading it.