Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book review: “Brain Bugs” by Dean Buonomano

Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives
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.


  1. Steven Pinker has written some books which cover similar territory, and they have very extensive references to the original literature.

  2. ""Jaws" leaves people more afraid of being eaten by sharks than of falling victim to heart attacks Through the 1960s, the answer was to get a bigger boat (STEM). During the past three years, US Welfare disbursements more than tripled, now beyond $1 trillion/year. Send others out to fish, then confiscate their catch for the greater good. There is nothing to fear!

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  4. Hi Bee,

    Thanks for the review as it looks like it’s another one for the stack. Wondering if this book has some advice that can be translated into action as to what in particular society as a whole can do about these brain bugs. My thoughts on this is that we can’t look to the powers that be as being much interested in such as finding them all to useful in having many of us to continue to think and act irrationally.

    ”If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance with his instincts, he will accept it even on the slenderest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

    -Bertrand Russell, “Proposed Roads To Freedom”, p.97



  5. Hi Phil,

    There isn't much in terms of advice besides what I also wrote, you first must understand that you need advice. When it comes to advice, Buonomano and Kahneman both refer to this book:

    Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

    which I haven't read however. The spirit of it seems to be that once you understand the pitfalls of decision making, you can prevent them by framing options in such a way that people are most likely to chose the beneficial ones. The prime example is that people have a tendency to going with the default. So it makes a big difference, for example, whether the default is that everybody is an organ donor unless he or she explicitly objects, or whether the default is that nobody is an organ donor unless he or she explicitly opts in. So even though people have in both cases a free choice, you have the possibility to "nudge" them into one or the other way, which comes down to a policy decision. Best,


  6. Ya Bee for those that don't know you, you have this other interest that goes back too Arizona?

    Coming from a somewhat different angle, as a layman interested in consciousness and what that implies, the issue of the mind-body is always a baseline with what I see. Of course, along the way research on one's favorite subject highlights areas of research that others might not know about.

    For instance,

    Owen hopes one day to ask patients that most difficult of questions, but says that new ethical and legal frameworks will be needed. And it will be many years, he says, “before one could be sure that the patient retained the necessary cognitive and emotional capacity to make such a complex decision”. So far, he has stayed away from the issue. “It might be a little reassuring if the answer was 'no' but you can't presuppose that.” A 'yes' would be upsetting, confusing and controversial. Do Brain Scans of Comatose Patients Reveal a Conscious State?

    The research here pushes forward the understanding that while comatose, the issues about pulling the plug as mentioned. Might we have a moral or ethical issue, where decisions have to be made, while understanding we may see more subtle transactions going on in the brain with fmri.

    So such decisions as to pulling the plug require "the technology" as to ascertain brain death?

    Just thought this interesting.



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