Common knowledge suggests that titles attract readership attention and sell books (along with captivating covers). Buonomano certainly selected appealing, but also disarmingly descriptive wording for his book, Brain bugs: How the brain’s flaws shape our lives. The text offers a comprehensive overview of the functioning of the human brain when this wonderful organ is confronted with everyday problems and dilemmas. Not surprisingly, the book has not only an appealing title, but also substance in its content to make the book a valuable read.
I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the wealth of information that the book contains about the human brain. Most notably, the text illustrates the writer’s ability to integrate different perceptual, cognitive, and behavioral phenomena in an engaging mosaic of experimental results, case histories, and anecdotes. Buonomano’s aim is to offer the reader a practical overview of a brain whose functioning and architecture, constrained by evolutionary history, lead to both desirable and flawed outcomes. Hence, the value of this read is not so much in the opportunity given to the reader to become familiar with novel findings, but in the chance to discover unifying themes, whereby disparate phenomena are incorporated into larger scenarios. The witty language and enjoyable anecdotes offered by the author serve to introduce and preserve the evidence-rich fabric of the unifying themes that he selected.
Chapters encompass different topics, including basic memory processes and concrete applications of sensory/perceptual and cognitive operations to domains such as marketing and religious beliefs. The text can be valuable to a variety of readerships. For instance, if a reader is interested in understanding his/her vulnerability to biased processing and departure from reasoned arguments, then the author’s writing will be revealing, shedding light onto the working of automatic, largely unconscious operations. Insights into the working of the unconscious mind may not prevent the reader from falling prey to the same biases again, but by revealing their existence, the individual may take the opportunity to exercise post-facto corrective actions. On the other hand, if the reader seeks to gather a comprehensive understanding of how a variety of ostensibly ‘ordinary malfunctions’ are related to a common principle, such as the associative nature of brain function, then the text will uncover a wealth of similarities in phenomena that at first glance appear unrelated. Undeniably, the author’s writing is so transparent that if unfamiliar concepts or phenomena are encountered, little time and effort will be required to understand their nature, context(s) of application, and relationships. Not surprisingly, transparency of exposition makes Brain bugs: How the brain’s flaws shape our lives a convenient read especially for cognitive neuroscience and cognitive psychology curricula at the undergraduate level, whereby the book can serve both as a standard textbook and as a supplemental read.
Although the author’s writing gives the reader an understanding of the gullibility and vulnerability of the human brain, the text also illustrates how functioning of the latter is symptomatic of adaptations occurred in a distant past. One of the most captivating arguments that the author makes is that ‘ordinary malfunctions’ of the brain, otherwise known as ‘bugs’, were not bugs in such a past where challenges confronted by our species were qualitatively different. Similarly, one of the most interesting aspects of the author’s narrative is his noting painstakingly that these bugs and their effects were not created equal. For instance, some of the brain’s flaws have minor effects on information processing and conduct, whereas others yield substantial deviations from normal functioning. Some bugs functioning at the unconscious level may also make the human mind largely unaware of the distortions they produce, whereas in a few instances, biases, although produced by largely unconscious processes, can be identified, offering the opportunity for remedial action. Notwithstanding the engaging quality of the author’s writing, at least one domain exists whose coverage offers a limited understanding of the selected ‘bug’. In such a domain, discussion of limited evidence assumes a rather speculative nature. In my opinion, the chapter concerning the ‘supernatural bug’ fits this profile, leading to the recognition that an examination of this bug may be premature at this point in time.
In summation, Brain bugs: How the brain’s flaws shape our lives is a text written for a broad readership, encompassing experts and novices of cognitive neuroscience. The book is entertaining and informative, offering the opportunity to amalgamate phenomena and concepts that may appear diverse in nature and substance.
© 2011 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York