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This is an excellent book. Cordelia Fine gathers together the results of a wide variety of psychology experiments and uses them to gather together a convincing explanation of how our subconsciouses are the real masters of our mind, no matter what we think.

The book starts off a little too 'chatty' but as well as more jokey considerations such as the problems many of us have trying to tell our brains to switch off when our bodies want to go to sleep, there is some serious cause for thought here- such as the research about how our own mood has been proven to affect which moods we perceive on other people's faces, and then particularly in the chapter "The Bigoted Brain" that gives examples of how subtly influenced and 'primed' we may be by images we see of the opposite sex, or people of other skin colours to our own. It is a thought-provoking book, you should read it and feel a little bit ashamed for having a brain at all...

The book is extremely readable, thanks to a very balanced writing style and also by the way in which the more dry scientific information is all relegated into the Notes And References section at the back of the book- meaning that you can read the main text without being troubled by too many obscure names of scientists or processes, or you can read every reference to get a more information-heavy read-through.

Highly recommended.
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on 10 February 2006
Suitable for the general reader rather than the expert (though it does provide a useful list of references), this is a light and entertaining account of findings from social psychological research on the topic of self-deception. We are told in largely non-technical language how numerous cleverly designed experiments have thrown light on the mental biases and distortions that beset our personal and social beliefs - how "vanity shields us from unpalatable truths about ourselves", how "irrationality clouds our judgment", how "emotions add a gloss of their own, colouring and confusing our opinions", and so forth. Although we can not altogether escape from these "deceptions of our wayward brains", the author concludes that knowledge of their mode of operation will help us guard against them, as will constant efforts to check the evidence on which our views are based.
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on 2 August 2006
This is a very good book - it is detailed in its use of the research literature, and the themes for each chapter are well-structured, and informative for everyone. I think that it is especially apt for managers of people. Great list of references at the back as well, for those who want to read the detail of the book's summaries. Thoroughly recommended - buy it and read it on the train.
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on 21 June 2007
This is an awesome book. It details how the brain (unconsciously) deceives itself and how susceptible we are to factors we are just unaware of. Amusingly written and the information it presents is just plain scary. If you thought you had an unbiased view of the world, THINK AGAIN! I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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on 20 November 2006
This is an excellent book. It brings together a wealth of academic research into the way our brains work and, in particular, how we can't rely on them, and I found this fascinating and in the case of some chapters genuinely helpful and illuminating. But what sets the book apart is the fact that this material is presented so clearly and readably. And it's often very funny!

This book was strongly recommended to me by a friend, who obviously thought I needed to read it, and I'm very glad I have now read it. I in turn recommended it to a friend who is a consultant psychiatrist, and in fact he'd already read it and thought it was very good too. So it works for a top brain-doctor and for a complete layman like me. Exceptional.
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on 8 January 2007
This book was thrown up as a recommendation by Amazon based on previous purchases - yes, advertising does work! And I'm pleased that I followed this particular recommendation.

Cordelia Fine has collected together research conducted by psychologists which illuminates how our brains function. But this is done in fairly broad brushstrokes. Anyone wanting a textbook on neurophysiology should look elsewhere. This could still have resulted in a very inaccessible book but this is not the case here. Her writing style is beautifully clear and lucid and I enjoyed her self-deprecating humour.

There are odd moments when you find yourself immersed in the details of some experiment but it is not long before you are drawn back into the warmth of some anecdote concerning her relationship with her husband. Indeed the frequent windows which are opened onto her marriage give this book a humanity which is most appealing.

A book which left me feeling charmed and educated in equal measures.
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HALL OF FAMEon 19 October 2006
In "Consciousness Explained", philosopher Daniel C. Dennett proposed a Multiple Drafts Model for human consciousness. The drafts were assemblages of information derived from however the brain stores memory information. The retrieval and use process was only partially outlined by Dennett and some have said he only "explained away" consciousness. Cornelia Fine has done some assemblage of her own, retrieving a wealth of cognitive science and behaviour studies to formulate some new ideas about how the human mind works. In a light, almost breezy style, she presents some fascinating insights. Whether "conscious" of it or not, her analysis validates Dennett's original premise. Ideas reside in the mind to be picked over and drawn upon when required. Who does the selecting?

The brain, she says, is a powerful organ. So powerful that, as the title states, it has "a mind of its own". There are patterns in the brain which lie either hidden or dormant, emerging sometimes when prompted by events, or remaining obscure even while driving our behaviour. While she can't "place" these elements in the brain, they can be demonstrated through a variety of testing procedures or by examination of people suffering various forms of brain trauma. Her chapter titles depict the factors as "Vain Brain", "Deluded Brain", "Immoral Brain", "Bigoted Brain" and others. Each of these chapters describes how the brain manifests these conditions and, in some cases, where the trait originated. That many of these conditions can be formed in childhood and remain fixed in place even when countered by later information is little short of frightening. It's not quite confirmation of "the blank slate", but uncomfortably close. The brain, once matured, is amazingly resistant to later challenges.

Fine correctly opens the book with "The Vain Brain", since it is ourselves that concern us most. Even though the human species evolved to live group-oriented lives, our brains are overwhelmingly concerned with the individual they inhabit. We form opinions about ourselves, which become firmly entrenched even when there is good reason to modify that ego-centrism. When we succeed in any social competition, it seems only "natural", but when we fail, we rationalise the defeat in many ways. This attitude is carried through in domestic relations, work environments or any other social circumstance. Nearly every social interaction arises from each of us "negotiating from a position of strength". Yet, in "The Weak-willed Brain", we learn that we also provide ourselves with any excuse for failing to carry through on our intentions. Goal-seeking requires massive amounts of mental resources to achieve success, and the brain, which already consumes a fifth of our body's resources just to tick over, is easily wearied.

The author's sources in producing this book are many and varied. Brain injuries, whether externally caused or as the result of stroke or other lesion, have provided the basis for many insights on behaviour. Thankfully, she doesn't trot out poor old Phineas Gage again, as so many others have done. Other victims of brain trauma are presented, which some experienced readers will recognise from other sources. The main support for her classifications relies on numerous clinical or academic experiments. As she stresses often, many of these lie on or over the border of ethical limits. Participants have been shocked - electrically and emotionally - and results carefully tabulated. Fine is rightly concerned about the long-term effects on some volunteers, as were the more aware experimenters. Given what Fine reveals about the persistence of memory and its impact on "conscious" activity, her concern is well-founded. Yet, even those questionable experiments have demonstrated that much of what we believe is our personal expression of will is a false concept. We cannot dismiss the findings of such research because the data was achieved in a dodgy manner. As Fine explains, we mustn't assume we have full control of our own minds. The brain is "unscrupulous" and "unreliable" and we trust it at our peril. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]

** with apologies to Steven Pinker
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on 29 October 2006
Cordelia Fine's "A Mind of its Own" reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink"--it is filled with surprising and counterintuitive observations about how the brain really works. Fine's thesis is that our brains do a fine job of deluding us--making us think that we are smart, attractive, above average, considerate, unbiased and blissfully free of the shortcomings and moral defects that plague other people. It's a good thing, too--as Fine points out in one striking paragraph, "there is a category of people who get unusually close to the truth about themselves and the world. . . . They are the clinically depressed." Ignorance really is bliss!

With a witty style, Fine reviews the psychological experiments that show that our moods and judgments can be dramatically influenced by external factors like beautiful weather or by what someone just said or did to us. Our brains make up lots of excuses after the fact to explain what we did and why, or to shift blame to others, all in an effort to make it seem that we are good people who are in control of our lives. We end up being bigoted, pigheaded, immoral and emotional, even when we think we are none of those things. On the whole, it's not a very flattering picture, although Fine does point to some encouraging studies suggesting that some of the brain's worst excesses (e.g., bigotry) can be curbed by careful attention to our thoughts--of course, in other contexts, focused thought can make things worse.

This book is full of lots of "aha!" moments, but it's not a self-help guide. The message sometimes seems to be "you're not really in conrol here--try to enjoy the ride!"

That said, I draw one very important conclusion from this entertaining book: avoid spending time with scientists who are conducting psychology experiments. These people are apparently always testing things other than what they pretend to be testing, and your brain will invariably come out of the experiment looking rather shoddy and ill-mannered. ("Not my brain!" you may protest, in which case you definitely need to read Chapter 1 of Fine's book.)
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on 28 June 2006
I was rather disappointed in this book : yes, it is very accessible and easy to read, and (very) occasionally amusing, but if you're looking for something that explains how the brain works, this is not the book for you.

There are some great facts here, but it's just not the depth of coverage I'd personally hoped for. The great thing about this book is that it highlights what we are not : i.e. impartial (-hence this review ;-), altruistic, logical, fair, rational.. Unfortunately, it does not really tell you WHY we are that way...

If you are looking for a book on brain function (-without going too technical), try Rita Carter's "Consciousness" or Robert Winston's "The Human Mind" (-the latter is especially readable).
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on 7 May 2008
This is a really important and little understood issue. It is also fascinating. The implications are huge; think of the courts, the media, the democratic process. It deserves a really good book; I just wish this was it.

This is a book for a lay audience. It romps through a range of research findings in relatively few pages without getting too deep, which is both an advantage and a weakness. It is now 15 years since I was last interested in the subject and had hoped that the book would update me. In this I was disappointed. I found parts that were new to me but there is also some very relevant work (for example on visual perception) that was not covered. The text is well referenced but, apart from some information on the web, unless you have access to an academic library that is not much use.

I would have liked more detail, especially to judge whether the strength of the effect in question. Psychology research is notoriously difficult, in part because the researchers themselves are subject to some of the biases described in the book. It is much more difficult to control variables, prove causation and eliminate biases in psychology than, for example, in chemistry. The subject matter - humans - are so much more complex and the involvement of the researcher is more personal. To illustrate this, I thought that after an interesting section on stereotypes, the author herself fell into the trap of exhibiting a clear stereotype of males in a rather feminist approach to sexism. Incidentally, she also missed the opportunity to think more deeply about stereotypes which are not as negative as often painted.

The diversions into the authors private life were slightly irritating. Presumably she is vitally interested in her new born but she shouldn't assume the reader is similarly inclined. We picked up the book for quite a different reason.

The book started by explaining that it was written in a hurry during a busy period in the authors life. I am afraid that is how it felt, hurried and superficial. Despite that, if the subject is new to you, I would still recommend it. It does teach you to be a little less confident about what you know 'for sure'.
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