• Malcolm Gladwell “Blink” Review by Dr Jack

    blinkI’ve been meaning to read this book for a very very long time. I spied it on a friend’s bookshelf and wasted no time in negotiating the borrow. I’d heard about it long ago from a mate from university who studied psychology and now works for a major record label. He had left me with low expectations saying that the hype that greeted it’s launch onto the market was unwarranted. In fact, he said, Mr Gladwell contradicts the point he makes throughout the book, right at the end.

    I can see how this book might be a bit “Marmite” for some people (this is a spread that we Brits either LOVE or HATE to put on our toast in the market – and it really does split people into two distinct camps at opposite ends of the spectrum). It takes an interesting point: that the expert brain is capable of making very accurate judgements in a blink (or two) of the eye – and then hammers it to death with examples from many different walks of life.

    Personally, having read hundreds of pop science books now with an eye on writing my own (in fact I have finally scored a book deal – only took 5 years!), I thought Blink was great. In my talks at business conferences and training employees in the worlds of Public Relations, Market Research and Advertising I find myself discussing the neuroscience of decision making at great length. The role of instinct, gut feeling, call it what you will has long been overlooked by economics in its first few decades and the brain sciences have been filling in the gaps in the last decade or so. What I’ve found is that lay audiences NEED concrete examples to really drive the message home. And Malcolm Gladwell is not only a great story teller but he has found many wonderful examples to put flesh on the scientific skeleton.

    From art experts evaluating the authenticity of a priceless statue, to police evaluating the threat posed to them by a potential criminal, the power and weakness of instant judgements are thoroughly dissected in a very compelling manner. This book may not be to the taste of those already well versed in neuroeconomics and psychology, but for the layperson my instinct tells me this is a must read.

    What I like most about this book is that, admittedly with a fair degree of repetition, it makes one point clear and true – if you have developed considerable expertise then you can make sound judgements in the blink of an eye, but if you haven’t got much experience then your instincts will probably misguide you and lead to potentially catastrophic consequences.

    I have many more book reviews in the works for this blog and recently reviewed Phil Barden’s “Decoded” elsewhere.  In the meantime, you might also consider catching my daily brain twitterings on Twitter.

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  • Review: Moonwalking with Einstein by Dr Jack Lewis

    I would recommend Joshua Foer’s “Moonwalking With Einstein” to anyone and everyone, but particularly actors/actresses looking for clues on how to remember their lines better

    If you are an actor or actress wanting to use the Memory Palace to help you memorise your lines then please allow me to recommend Josh Foer’s book “Moonwalking with Einstein”. Of all the books I’ve read on memory I think it is the best combination of being an entertaining read AND very informative. It’s a real page turner, with all the most important bits of hard science scattered thinly, digestibly and evenly along the path of a real life adventure into the world of memory. He went from covering the World Memory Championships as a journalist one year, to winning the US Memory Championships the very next. A very impressive feat. But also, you get the impression, one that you or I could do if we got round to putting the time in! His is the best description I’ve as yet come across of how to use the Memory Palace to memorise lines of prose or poetry. If any of you know of any better techniques please leave a comment below.

    In addition to these weekly brain posts you can get a daily #braintweet by following me on Twitter, which reminds me… I haven’t found today’s one yet so I’d better get searching 😉

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  • Norman Doidge’s “The Brain That Changes Itself” reviewed by Dr Jack

    I’ve been devouring popular science books over the last year, with a view to writing a book of my own, and there is no doubt that THE BRAIN THAT CHANGES ITSELF stands out head and shoulders above the rest. Through a series of well-researched scientific breakthroughs explained via a variety of compelling real-life stories, it effortlessly convinces the reader that the human brain is a highly adaptable, “plastic” organ capable of dramatically rewiring itself, at any stage in life, to enable significant recovery from even catastrophic brain damage.

    This book is nothing less than inspirational. The 20th Century doctrine of the “unchanging brain” – hardwired throughout childhood and fundamentally unalterable by the end of adolescence – is well and truly turned on its head by this remarkable compilation of case studies to the contrary.

    The miracles of modern neuroscience: 65 year old Professor Pedro Bach-y-Rita crawling around on his hands and knees, just like a baby, en route to recovering his ability to first walk, then talk and ultimately go back into teaching, after his brainstem stroke. Ingenious machines, sending computer-generated sensory information to a person’s tongue in place of visual or  vestibular information lost to brain damage, enable people to see and walk again. The once seriously learning disabled Barbara Arrowsmith Young now heading up a school that uses novel programmes she developed to treat herself by forcing underdeveloped brain areas to up their game through intensive training sessions.

    All of these and much, much more demonstrate that the brain CAN change. All that is required is a knowledge of exactly what is required to encourage those changes to occur – all clearly outlined in this book – and then dedication to putting the hours in to make sure those changes happen. It turns out that neuroplasticity can even explain how the miraculous psychological changes that can be enabled by psychiatric counselling might be underpinned by physical changes in the brain. Sexual attraction, love, pain, obsession, anxiety, compulsions and habits are all fundamentally influenced by neuroplasticity and the sooner the world gets to grips with this the better. Even putting the hours in using your imagination to practice cognitive skills to improve your mental abilities does so via physical changes to the number and connectivity of brain cells.

    If I ran a school of brain science I would make this compulsary reading. Partly because the “neuroplastic revolution” that the author, Norman Doidge, envisages is extremely empowering to all people; not just the old and neurologically-impaired, but for every single human being on earth that wishes to improve their brain function. But also because it captures an essential truth about science – professors, medics and other experts who share with us their wisdom are not infallible. They do not, CAN not, know it all. They can only peddle the best of what has stood the test of time since they acquired their body of knowledge combined with the new research that has been confirmed by subsequent independent research. There is always the possibility that they, and their forefathers got the wrong end of the stick – which is almost certainly what happened with the concept of neuroplasticity. Consequently, we must all be critical of what we read and remain open to new findings and novel ways of thinking about how the world, and our own brains, truly work.

    In addition to these website brain posts you can follow Dr Jack’s daily #braintweets

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  • “The Decisive Moment” by Jonah Lehrer

    I would whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to understand “how the brain makes up its mind”. Jonah Lehrer tells compelling stories about real-life decision making situations in order to bring to life several fascinating insights into the tug-of-war that goes on between instinctive versus thoughtful aspects of every choice we make. Tales of firefighters, surgeons, consumers, poker players, financiers, sportsmen and pilots compellingly and efffectively reveal the differences between decision making scenarios where we should TRUST our instincts and others in which we should DISTRUST them. An extremely thorough, readable and up-to-date account of the latest research into what goes on in our brains during a wide variety of decision-making scenarios, from picking a favourite jam to making a snap decision on a course of action that may, or may not, avert imminent disaster. It reveals that even expert decision makers can be just as bad as novices because the trade-off between the two competing influences is usually imperfect. The pursuit of an optimal decision is often be tripped up by malevolent forces such as loss aversion, confirmation bias and overconfidence – leading to a reluctance to evaluate decision making errors – our only hope should we wish to improve our decision making strategies. By the end of this fantastic book the reader will have developed a solid understanding of how the cold, rational, analytical apects involved during conscious evaluation of the benefits in light of the associated risks for each option must wrestle with the hot, emotional, impulsive aspects of decision making (providing a window into subconscious processing of the relevant considerations).

    I have read a lot of popular science in recent months and have noticed that many authors have a tendancy to overuse scientific jargon, labour their point in overly-dense prose and/or try too hard to be funny. In stark contrast, I take my proverbial hat off to Jonah Lehrer – he nailed the tone and pace of this book perfectly –  producing a truly great read!

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