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What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite Review - What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite
by David DiSalvo
Prometheus Books, 2011
Review by Alex Jenson
Apr 30th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 18)

 

How does the brain work? And what exactly is its relationship to the mind, to consciousness, to the everyday behavior that we often engage in without much forethought, thought or afterthought? To the first question we can confidently say that enough has been written on this subject to bamboozle a planet-sized brain. To the second question we can add that the brain-mind connection is now firmly accepted as fact. The mind is just 'the brain doing its job'. But is that a job that is being performed with due diligence, patience and attention to the practical problems of living? The author of this book seems to think the answer to that question is a resounding 'no'.

Our wondrous, highly evolved head organ, is, according to Disalvo, a  thing which often works against our better interests. We are, after all, built for survival and the brain is a conservative lump of matter which takes the path of least resistance, often acting against our long-term interests for the sake of short-term survival. Just as a canny salesman can dupe your brain into accepting a short term reward that comes at a higher long term price, so our brains will do the exact same thing to us.

This is a meticulously researched book supported by laboratory experiments into every conceivable dynamic of psychology, human behavior and decision-making. If you want to know more about why humans do what they do, look no further. Why for example, do many people seek out information only to confirm pre-existing beliefs, rather than engage in more exploratory behavior which might broaden knowledge, open them up to new ways of thinking and lead to greater critical awareness and an ability to engage in more self-challenging behaviors? Very simply, because the human brain craves the satisfaction that comes from being proved right. The brain lives on a preferred diet of stability, certainty, and consistency and perceives unpredictability, uncertainty and instability as threats to its survival. If you want to stretch the boundaries of what is possible, you might just have to accept the fact that your brain is an obstacle. But by the same token, it is also your catalyst. It would seem that knowledge about the brain is extra brain power. That is what DiSalvo is communicating. Your brain is not out to get you, but it certainly has hardwired limitations which can undermine your long term goals, unless of course you sift through a book like this and garner the necessary knowledge that will lead you to the attainment of a more 'dynamic' brain.

That's not to say that all the information in this book should be read at face-value. Science-help is more rigorous and rooted in clinical procedure than the suspect ramblings of an unqualified motivational self-help guru, but even so, it's laughable to think that the whole gamut of human behavior, the whys and wherefores and inner-workings of our biological lump of grey matter can somehow proffer an explanation for everything that we do. Of course it can't, but at a practical level, DiSalvo presents a very broad ranging smorgasbord of rigorously scientific investigations into neuroscience, cognitive science and social psychology. A brain that stops to think about what it is doing, in order to stop or contemplate alternative courses of action, is a brain that is engaging in a better kind of game...after all, if thinking is what leads to action and thinking stems from brain activity, surely it is better to be in possession of a higher awareness of how the brain functions, in order to activate better thinking and improved decision-making.

A likeable quality of this book is that it presents a dynamic overview of every facet of society and how this also impacts on our cognitive universe. It presents human behavior from a good range of perspectives...from the individual level, through group dynamics and also through the filter of the controllers – those who seek to manipulate human psychology from economic and power motives. Clearly everyone is vulnerable to brain manipulation. Often we behave as others behave, for fear of being perceived as different. But what this book really shows is that it's possible to think and act outside the box without straying too far from the realms of normal brain functioning. That is everybody's right. After all, your brain is yours. It is there for your own use. It shouldn't really be down to a book like this to remind of us of that fact, but of course, that is exactly what this book does, and it can only be a healthy reminder.

This is a real thinking-person's book. You won't be convinced by all the evidence presented here and neither will all of it be useful in a practical day-to-day sense, but there is something 'switched on' about DiSalvo's writing. As the world gets ever more complex and full of diversions to lead you down unhealthy cognitive dead-ends, it pays to have the critical faculties which not only prolong your brain's survival, but which help you rise above the limitations of evolutionary forms of thinking and action that have been encoded into our biological system...in other words, automatic behaviors that often stem from an absence of thought. While it is not possible to be completely without instinctive types of behavior...that would also be boring...it is clear from reading this book, that self-awareness and higher understanding of our own complex inner-workings is a very desirable goal which can lead to better balancing of thought, action and consequence.

But as the author himself writes, 'The vital point to remember is that the gap between knowing and doing is ever-present until we commit to acting'. A fascinating, intelligent and smoothly written book.

 

© 2013 Alex Jenson

 

Alex Jenson writes about himself: "I have just successfully completed my training to teach English as a second Language. I am a published author and poet, a film school screenwriting graduate. I am working on my first feature length screenplay. I was born in the north of England.  I am a big sports fan and I love running and playing football."


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