The human brain, and hence the human mind, is not an optimal, designed-from-scratch apparatus. Rather, it is an imperfect amalgam of shoddy components. That is the central thesis of David Linden's new book The Accidental Mind. Neurons are slow, leaky, and unreliable — hardly ideal computing elements. The whole brain, too, is not designed to the plan of some omnipotent engineer. Instead, evolution has endowed it with plenty of 'anachronistic junk'. Which is why, according to Linden, our minds often distort reality and can lead us to act foolishly. For example, when you reach out to touch something, your brain filters out what it expects. This selective neglect of expected input allows us to focus on unexpected stimuli, but it can be counterproductive. It may explain, for instance, why pushing and shoving confrontations tend to escalate. When someone pushes you, you feel it more than when you push the other with the same force, because the sensation caused by your own push is largely, though unconsciously, expected by your brain.
Linden tells his story well, in an engaging style, with plenty of erudition and a refreshing honesty about how much remains unknown. The book should easily hold the attention of readers with little background in biology and no prior knowledge of brains. It would make an excellent present for curious non-scientists and a good book for undergraduates who are just entering into the brain's magic menagerie. Even readers trained in neuroscience are likely to enjoy the many tidbits of rarely taught information — on love, sex, gender, sleep and dreams — that spice up Linden's main argument.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
The Accidental Mind
Geory Striedter writes a review of David Linden's new book "The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God" ..Harvard University Press: 2007. (PDF of the review is here) Some clips: