Thursday, November 15, 2012
Book review: “Brain Bugs” by Dean Buonomano
By Dean Buonomano
W. W. Norton & Company (August 6, 2012)
We have to thank natural selection for putting a remarkably well-working and energy-efficient computing unit between our ears. Our brains have allowed us to not only understand the world around us, but also shape nature to suit our needs. However, the changes humans have brought upon the face of the Earth, and in orbit around it, have taken place on timescales much shorter than those on which natural selection works efficiently. And with this comes the biggest problem mankind is facing today: We are changing our environment faster than we can adapt to it - evolution is lagging behind.
The human body did not evolve to sit in an office chair all day long, neither did we have time to adapt to an overabundance of food, travel over different time-zones, or writing a text-message while driving on a 6-lane highway. We have absolutely no experience in governing the lives of billions of people and their impact on ecological systems. These are not situations our brains are well suited to comprehend.
There are four ways to deal with this issue. First, ignore it and wait for evolution to catch up. Not a very enlightened approach as we might go extinct in its execution. Second, the Amish approach: keep the environment in a state that our brains evolved to deal with. Understandable, but not for the curious and not realistically what most people will sign up to. Third, tweak our brains and speed up evolution. Unfortunately, our scientific knowledge isn't yet sufficient for this, at least not without causing even larger problems. This then leaves Fourth: Learn about our shortcomings and try to avoid mistakes by recognizing and preventing situations in which we are prone to make errors of judgement.
I recently reviewed David Kahneman's book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", which focuses on a particular type of shortcoming in our judgement, that is that we're pretty bad in intuitively estimating risks and making statistic assessments. Dean Buonomano's book includes these biases that are focus of Kahneman's work, but offers a somewhat broader picture, covering other "brain bugs" that human have, such as memory lapses, superstition, phobias, and imitative learning. Buonomano is very clear in pointing out that all these "bugs" are actually "features" of our brains and beneficial in many if not most situations. But sometimes what is a useful feature, such as learning from others' mishaps, can go astray, as when watching the movie “Jaws” leaves people more afraid of being eaten by sharks than of falling victim to heart attacks.
Dean Buonomano is professor for neurobiology and psychology at UCLA. His book is easy to follow and well written. It moves forward swiftly, which I have appreciated very much because it turns out I knew almost everything that he wrote about already, a clear sign that I have too many subscriptions in my reader. The illustrations are sparse but useful, the endnotes are helpful, and the reference list is extensive.
I have only one issue to take with this book, which is that Buonomano leaves the reader with little indication on how well established the research is that he writes about. In some cases he offers neurological explanations for "brain bugs" that I suspect are actually quite controversial among specialists - it would be surprising if it wasn't so. He has an interesting opinion to offer on the origin of religious beliefs that he clearly marks as his own, but in other instances he is not as careful. Since I'm not an expert on the topic, but generally suspicious about results from fields with noisy data, small samples, and large media attention, I'm none the wiser for what the durability of the conclusions is concerned.
In summary: This book gives you a good overview on biases and shortcomings of the human brain in a well-written and entertaining way. You will not get a lot of details about the underlying scientific research, but this is partly made up for with a good reference list. I'd say this book deserves four out of five stars.