Over the past few years I’ve been reading copious amounts of popular science. My bookshelves are quite literally overflowing with books about the brain. Yet despite the fierce competition, when it comes to dreaming up metaphors to cut through the complexities of the mind in order to help people understand what drives human behaviour The Chimp Paradox by Steve Peters is king of the jungle.
The main reason it is so brilliant is the elegant manner in which over a century of insights from the fields of psychology and psychiatry is effortlessly translated into a practical user guide to mind management. With The Chimp Paradox to hand, everyone can grasp what drives the internal conflicts that take place in our minds no a daily basis, not to mention the strategies they can employ to diffuse the tensions that inevitably arise as a consequence of being in possession of a piece of neural apparatus that evolved in leaps and bounds over millions of years. There is a delicate balance between simplifying complex concepts and dumbing them down to the point of being condescending. Steve Peters judges this to perfection.
We all have moments in life that we look back on only to find ourselves shaking our heads in disbelief when we recall what we said, how we felt or what we wrote in the heat of the moment. Actions or comments that seem entirely justified on one day often lead to wholehearted regret soon after, yet we make the same mistakes over and over again. By developing an easy to grasp and simple to use model of our mind in which two individuals co-exist: the erratic, primal, emotional CHIMP brain on the one hand and the calm, highly-evolved, rational HUMAN brain on the other – it enables us to understand our own behaviours and, perhaps more importantly, those of the people that we encounter each day.
By thoroughly understanding what drives the decisions and conduct of not just ourselves but also other people, we can start to develop good habits of thought and action (or “Autopilots” as Prof Peters calls them) in place of bad habits of thought and action (dubbed by Prof Peters as “Gremlins”) that cause so much suffering and discomfort in the world. It also throws into sharp relief the times when it’s best to let others vent their frustrations (when their CHIMP is in the drivers seat) without taking any personal offense and saving what you really think of them for a later time when they might have achieved a more reasonable state of mind (when their HUMAN is in control) in which they might actually be capable of grasping the wisdom in your words.
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Do No Harm by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh is a truly magical read.
This candid, blunt and often painfully amusing collection of tales about neurosurgical procedures that went well against the odds, that went catastrophically wrong when it really should have been plain sailing, drives home how tough being a neurosurgeon really is. Several passages describe what it’s like to carefully navigate the nervous tissue packed tightly inside a person’s skull so beautifully that it verged on the poetic. Others, conveying the profound guilt associated with the realisation that an inadvertently nicked blood vessel would ultimately leave the patient permanently paralysed for the rest of their life, were so honest as to be emotionally brutalising. And as for the how the changes in the NHS have impacted on the profession of neurosurgery, not to mention the Catch 22 of how do develop surgical skills when no one wants to be operated on by a novice, it generates tremendous empathy for those brave young souls embarking from scratch on this hugely challenging career path in a totally new era.
Do No Harm really struck a chord with me on a personal level. During my teens I was always torn between a career in medicine and my scientific calling. Friends’ parents often commented that I would make a brilliant doctor and my best friend’s father, who spent most of his career as head of immunology at St Thomas’s Hospital in London, urged me on numerous occasions to take the medical route and then branch out into research later. Deep down however I lacked the courage to accept the inevitable mistakes that might lead to catastrophe for my patients. I had watched far too many episodes of the 90’s medical drama series Casualty. This excellent series may well have inspired thousands of Brits to pursue careers in medicine, but for me, it instead made me acutely aware that unnecessary deaths were an unavoidable consequence of practicing medicine. I realised that errors of judgement could spell disaster at any moment and I knew deep down that these would inevitably weigh heavily on my conscience. So I chose to pursue neuroscience instead of medicine.
The first few chapters of Do No Harm brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion because the tales being told were not works of fiction, but instead the autobiographical real-life experiences of an extraordinarily honest man, brave enough not only to build a career in surgery but also to give equal voice to both his successes and failures.
This is an excellent book. Not only will you find it very rewarding but it might just make you realise how lucky we Brits are to have people like Henry Marsh in our beloved National Health Service.
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I’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.
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.
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