Monday, June 25, 2018

The secret life of the mind - book overview

An interesting read, picked up at the local library. The secret life of the mind - how the brain thinks, feels, and decides by Mariano Sigman. Published in 2015 and translated into English in 2017 by Little, Brown and Co. Sigman is an Argentinian physicist, see here for Ted Talk,  and here for youtube video, summarising some of the items in the book. 

A short introduction is followed by 6 chapters. 7 pages of references and comprehensive index.

 The book begins with ‘Origins of thought’ which summarises the developmental aspects of neurobiology. The sub-title of the chapter is how babies think and communicate and how can we understand them better?’ In short, we are wired to learn, some of the ways we conceptualise the world are innate, but social conditioning and experiences provide large contributions. Of note is the explanation of Piaget’s object permanence in 10 month old babies. They can see that an object has been shifted from under or behind a barrier, but still point to the original location. This is not because they have not conceptualised that the object has shifted, but because they are unable to override the stronger message they are getting from the brain, to indicate their true answer.

The fuzzy borders of identity – what defines our choices and allows us to trust other people and your own decisions? – An overview of the principles of neuro-economics. Basically, our decisions are governed by our unconscious which in turn is ‘trained’ by our personality and predilections. How we make decisions is often thought to be rational, but much of the decision making process is founded on our beliefs and biases. We tend to be more optimistic as it is a coping mechanism for us to get on with our lives. The brain has evolved mechanisms to ignore certain negative aspects of the future. The halo effect is pronounced in us, as it is based on the brain’s need to find structure and patterns. The various moral dilemmas are used as examples of how we go for irrational decisions, based on our emotions rather than our logic.

The machine that constructs reality – how does consciousness emerge in the brain and how are we governed by our unconscious. This chapter explores how the brain decodes patterns. The world of the ‘unconscious’ is also explored and explained. These concepts are important to understanding the next chapter. We are drawn to forming patterns as these help us make sense of the world. These patterns allow us to become experts in specialised areas. However, these patterns also trip us up when we come to make decisions as the pre-established preconceptions, blind us to alternatives.

Voyages of consciousness (or consciousness tripping) – what happens in the brain as we dream; is it possible for us to decipher, control and manipulate our dreams? This chapter discusses the differences between dreams and imagination. Dreams are generally not controllable but can be very realistic. Some people have lucid dreaming, which they are aware of. The contribution of pharmacology (e.g. cannabis, lysergics) to states of consciousness are introduced and pros and cons discussed.

The brain is constantly transforming – what makes our brains more or less predisposed to change? This chapter provides foundation for understanding how the brain learns. Humans are primed to learn and some forms of ‘understanding’ are innate. For example, children’s brains are wired to learn language. Experiences attained from life, provide scaffolds from which to build more learning. Therein lies the difference between novices and experts. Novices have less foundation to call on and need to attend to cues at each step of learning. Novices are also unable to work out what they need to focus on, therefore, their energies are drawn into all the aspects of the process as they are unable, as yet, to see the wood from the trees. In comparison, experts have attained an all-encompassing perspective on their specialist area and are able to draw on this to extend learning. The example provided is of chess masters playing multiple games whilst blindfolded. As these expert chess players have established patterns in their brains of chess boards and moves, they are able to associate the plays and make decisions without having to actually see the board. Attaining expert hood is assisted by the individual’s attributes and proclivities but still requires concerted input / effort / practice to polish and progress beyond the standardised.

Educated brains – how can we use what we have learned about the brain and human thought to improve education? Application of the concepts introduced are presented in this chapter. Advocates teaching should be centred around helping learners improve their metacognition. So learners need to be able to work out they know something and also that others know other things (theory of mind). It is important for learners to be able to work out if there is a difference between their own knowledge and that of others and then have the skills / tools to bridge the gap. Learning through teaching others (tutor learning), even for the very young, is recommended as a way to increase metacognition and extend learners’ theory of mind.

A very readable, short book of just over 200 pages. A two page appendix provides an overview of brain anatomy and 15 pages of bibliography are provided for follow up.

The book offers many examples, summaries of contemporary scholarly work and metaphors to assist with explaining the various concepts introduced and extended on through the book. It is a good resource for laypeople interested in understanding better, how the brain works.

No comments: