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BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Life of the Mind – How Our Brain Thinks, Feels and Decides by Mariano Sigman

| 24 February 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Life of the Mind – How Our Brain Thinks, Feels and Decides by Mariano Sigman

HarperCollins Publishers
June 2017
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / General Science / Popular Science

7.5/10

In many respects, the brain is a black box to us. It is a mysterious organ that is charge of how we perceive, reason and communicate as well as our feelings and dreams. But how does it do all of this? Mariano Sigman draws on two decades of research and practice for his book, The Secret Life of the Mind where he aims to demystify some of the brain’s functions and enlighten us so that we may know more about such an important part of our bodies. On many fronts he succeeds, but there is still more research that needs to be done in this fledgling field.

My voyage over the last 20 years, between New York, Paris and Buenos Aires, has been into the innermost parts of the human brain, an organ composed of countless neurons that codify perception, reason, emotions, dreams and language.
The goal of this book is to discover our mind in order to understand ourselves more deeply, even in the tiniest recesses that make up who we are. We will look at how we form ideas during our first days of life, how we give shape to our fundamental decisions, how we dream and how we imagine, why we feel certain emotions, how the brain transforms and how we are changed along with it.

Sigman is a physicist by training and is now a leading figure in cognitive neuroscience. He has delivered numerous TEDx talks on learning and decision making and those form the basis of this book. He also includes chapters about the development of different brain functions from birth through childhood, as well as the plasticity exhibited in adulthood.

We will see that, from the day we are born, we are already able to form abstract, sophisticated representations. Although it sounds far-fetched, babies have notions of mathematics, language, morality and even scientific and social reasoning. This creates a repertoire of innate intuitions that structure what they will learn – what we all learned – in social, educational and family spaces over the years of childhood.

The language that Sigman uses is quite formal and complex. The text was originally written in Spanish and has been translated into English. The subject matter can also be quite dense and complicated at times. While Sigman does his best to explain different phenomena and includes some context about biology and various brain structures, it is useful if readers have some prior knowledge of science, biology, or neuroscience. At the very least they should also ensure that they can take time out to stop and contemplate the prose because this is not a quick and easy read, as shown by the following paragraph about decision making:

As in the procedure sketched out by [Alan] Turing, the cerebral mechanism for making decisions is built on an extremely simple principle: the brain elaborates a landscape of options and starts a winner-take-all race between them.
The brain converts the information it has gathered from the senses into votes for one option or the other. The votes pile up in the form of ionic currents accumulated in a neuron until they reach a threshold where the brain deems there is sufficient evidence. These circuits that coordinate decision-making in the brain were discovered by a group of researchers headed by William Newsome and Michael Shadlen. Their challenge was to design an experiment simple enough to be able to isolate each element of the decision and, at the same time sophisticated enough to represent decision-making in real life.

It is commendable that Sigman uses a multi-disciplinary approach in this book. He draws on research by: biologists, mathematicians, anthropologists, psychologists, doctors, linguists, engineers and philosophers in order to paint a vivid and fascinating portrait of this enigmatic thing. There is a lot we can learn about the brain and its complex functions and Sigman is a passionate guide throughout it all.

The cortex is organized into the dorsal system and the ventral system. Learning consists of a process of transferring from one system to the other. When we learn to read, the slow effortful system that works ‘letter by letter’ (dorsal system) is replaced by the other, which is capable of detecting entire words without effort and much faster (ventral system). But when the conditions are not favourable for the ventral system (for example, if the letters are written vertically) we go back to using the dorsal, which is slow and serial but has the flexibility to adapt to different circumstances. In many cases, learning means freeing the dorsal system to automatize a process so we devote our attention and mental effort to other matters.

This book is likely to be enjoyed by readers who were fans of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast & Slow. They will enjoy the fascinating insights into human’s predispositions and brain mechanisms and how this can impact and influence our everyday lives including our inner thoughts, workings, and decision-making processes. Two particularly intriguing issues that humans are susceptible to are the halo effect and confirmation bias.

Studying human decisions in the social and economic problems of daily life, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and Nobel Prize laureate in Economics, identified two archetypal flaws in our sense of confidence.
The first is that we tend to confirm what we already believe. That is to say we are generally headstrong and stubborn. Once we believe something, we look to nourish that prejudice with reaffirming evidence… [Thus] when we evaluate one aspect of a person we do so under the influence of our perception of their other traits. And this is called the halo effect
The confirmation bias – the generic principle from which the halo effect derives cuts reality down so we see only what is coherent with what we already believe to be true. “If she looks competent, she’ll be a good senator.” This inference, which ignores facts pertinent to the assessment and is based entirely on a first impression, turns out to be much more frequent then we realize (sic) or will admit in our day-to-day decisions and beliefs.

The Secret Life of the Mind is an intriguing, scientific and academic look at the brain, the mind and its functions. Mariano Sigman has penned an engaging look at this complex and multifaceted topic and he has framed it in quite a comprehensive and multi-disciplinary way that encapsulates both prior and current research findings. Thanks to Sigman, the mind need not be an elusive secret but something most of us can learn about and celebrate for all its intricate beauty.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com

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