The Idiot Brain: A Neuroscientist Explains What Your Head is Really Up To
by Dean Burnett Allen & Unwin (2016)
Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist, is also a massively popular science blogger for The Guardian newspaper.
In this funny and fascinating book he takes up-to-date research in neuroscience and adds a good dash of humour to examine how and why our brains sabotage our behaviour.
The bottom line, Dean Burnett tells us, is that the brain is fallible. It is “incredibly messy and disorganised” despite its profound role at the very seat of consciousness.
But he is not disconsolate about that. Rather, with good humour, he sets out to celebrate the brain’s haphazard properties with a look at the brain’s odder qualities and how the things it does affects us – not always for the good.
In the process he explains many things – why people do and say such weird stuff, why you can’t always trust your memories, how drug addiction is mostly in the mind, and the darker side of things when the brain breaks down and spirals into depression or nervous breakdown.
Burnett starts out looking at how the brain regulates the body and how that relates to its most primitive function – simply keeping the body alive by any means possible.
Among other things he explains what conceivable benefit there can be in getting seasick, the complicated science of sleeping and why some of us suffer from eating disorders.
His chapter on memory is a fascinating analysis of how memories are made, how they are retrieved and how they are lost – and why we can’t always rely on them.
“Rather than a static record of information or events like pages in a book,” he writes, “our memories are regularly tweaked and modified to suit what the brain interprets as our needs (however wrong that may be).”
The worrying thing is that false memories come not just to those suffering psychological issues – far from it. They may happen to pretty much anyone.
That’s something to remember the next time you see someone in court swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Just which one, you may well ask.
But the perhaps surprising news is that a glass of wine could be just the thing to refresh that memory (it’s complicated), but too much can cause a full shutdown of memory formation.
Other chapters look at how the brain creates fear and how that relates to full-blown phobias. He also explains why we are so partial to a good conspiracy theory while others embrace fear through either base-jumping or a horror movie.
He also sets the record straight on why we shouldn’t be too upset if we remember faces but forget names, lose track of important information while remembering embarrassing trivia, or forget why we went into a room the moment we get there.
One of the novel concepts Burnett introduces is the “just world” hypothesis, whereby the brain is thought to automatically assume the world is just and fair, where good behaviour is rewarded and bad punished.
Wrong-headed though this bias may be, the argument is that we need it to survive as a community. As he argues “believing the world is random and all actions are ultimately meaningless won’t help you get out of bed at a reasonable hour”. Even when the world is proven not be like this, and wicked people are seen to flourish, the bias is often so ingrained in our brains that we stick to it.
In the end, Burnett writes, our brains determine what is real and what is not based on our expriences and the context of how we are brought up.
“That is why unrealistic beliefs are classed as delusions only if they’re not consistent with the person’s existing belief system and views.”
As he concludes: “So that’s the brain. Impressive isn’t it? But also a bit stupid.”
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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