I read a lot of books on scientific and skeptical themes, many of which I heard on some of my favourite podcasts, such as Point of Inquiry. I highly recommend that podcast and website as a way of sifting through the millions of books out there. I have read many books after listening to interviews with the authors, and they rarely disappoint. Point of Inquiry was, in fact, one of the first mediums that taught me that there even was such a thing as a skepticism as a ‘movement’ or school of thought. Up until then, I just thought I was a weirdo, but once I discovered skepticism, it was like I had won the lottery. Only in this lottery, I mainly won a whole slew of resources and an avenue to meet others with a similar love for science and reason, and I was faced with an overwhelming number of decisions about where to invest my time. So much choice! Anyway, it was through this discovery that I found that not only could I read these books, but that perhaps there would be others like me who would want to talk about them! So I did what any good book nerd would do: I started a book club. A skeptical one, at that.
So far we’ve read some excellent books, such as Bad Science (one of my favourite books, and one I will review at a later date. You can actually read one of the book’s chapters here.) and the Invisible Gorilla. This time, it wasn’t Point of Inquiry that pointed me to the book, rather it was a fellow member of the Perth Skeptics. One of the founders of that group, Kylie Sturgess, also has a podcast and she even interviewed the authors.
I’ve delayed writing this post because I loved this book so much, and have so much to say, yet I don’t want to say too much about it because I really want people to read it. Basically the premise of the book is this: Our minds don’t work the way we think they do, and the way we see ourselves does not align well with reality in many surprising ways. The subtitle of the book is “And other ways Our Intuition Deceives Us” and that’s a very appropriate subtitle indeed. The authors take the reader through a string of stories and scientific evidence that challenge our instincts. The book is well-written, highly readable, entertaining, and endlessly fascinating. It helps you understand not only how many ways our brains deceive us, but also how many things they are prone to missing altogether.
This is one of those books that I wish I could make mandatory reading. Of course, I am not foolish enough to believe that everyone who reads it would believe the information it contains, but that’s okay. For people who are genuinely interested in learning more about how the brain works, why it works that way and its limitations, this book will give you the basics and direct you to many resources to learn more. It’s a beautiful book for skeptics, in that in the process of reading, you may go through a bit of a crisis because you suddenly feel that your mind is not at all what you believe. As stated in the summary of the book on its website, “Reading this book will make you less sure of yourself-and that’s a good thing.”
Gee, I’m really selling this, aren’t I? “Read this book, it will make you doubt everything you know about yourself!” Well, firstly I wouldn’t go that far, unless you are prone to existential crises. And second, I think that a bit of doubt can be a very constructive thing, especially if it creates more awareness about how to overcome, limit, or (at the very least) acknowledge that we don’t always know or see the things we think we do. I realise that this is all a bit opaque, so let me end this by listing a few of the ‘illusions’ the authors cover in the book. They are ‘illusions’ because our intuition tells us they are true, but research tells us how they are not:
- The illusion of attention refers to our mistaken beliefs about the way attention works. We experience far less our visual world than we think we do. We miss things happening right in front of usall the time, and we are much worse at multi-tasking than we would like to believe. Our brain has a limit on the number of things we can pay attention to, be it in real life, a movie, etc. This is why we are so notoriously bad at talking on a mobile phone while driving, why we may think that something ‘jumped’ out in front of us while driving or why a radiologist can miss something that they weren’t told to look for. We aren’t good at noticing the unexpected, but we think that we are because, well, it just seems so obvious, especially in hindsight. This illusion is where the authors discuss the source of the book’s name, this video.
- In discussing the illusion of memory, the authors debunk the myth that even our most vivid memories are accurate. Remember where you were on September 11th? Or when JFK was shot? In the book the authors discuss how even the most salient memories are subject to distortion. They even discuss something that has happened to me on a number of occasions that I had always pondered. Ever hear someone recall a story that happened to you and get really confused? I have. Well it turns out that this is all part of the illusion of memory – we can even take on other people’s memories as our own once they have told us the details of a story.
- The illusion of confidence was among my favourites in the book. This is a reference to our tendency to overestimate our own abilities, especially in relation to other people. (The chapter is titled”What Smart Chess Payers and Stupid Criminals Have in Common”.) In this chapter, the authors also discuss how this illusion causes us to interpret others’ confidence as a valid signal of their own abilities. Consequently, we trust confident people more, and this can have very serious consequences. For instance, a confident witness is often viewed by juries to be a truthful witness, but as the illusion of memory shows us, confidence in our memory of an event does not mean it is more accurate.
- The illusion of knowledge causes us to think we know morethan we actually do. Often, we have just surface knowledge when we think we actually have a deep understanding. I think we can all relate to this in our experiences with, say, recent University grads at work or with a friend who went to a seminar and suddenly considers him/herself an expert. However, we all have this illusion. It’s what causes us to think we know how common every day objects (e.g. a bicycle, toilet) work, and it’s also what leads us to believe projects will take much less time or resources than they actually will.
I will stop there because the fun in reading this book is in the narrative, and knowing too much about it ahead of time could spoil the fun. Suffice it to say that the authors do provide reasons for these illusions, and offer advice on how we can work with them. Though you may find yourself doubting your entire life during the first chapter, I promise it gets better. And I also promise that this doubting is precisely why this book is so excellent and enjoyable to read.
As a side note, I personally enjoyed that the book critiques Malcolm Gladwell’s work a number of times. If you’ve ever read Gladwell’s work and have been agitated by the grand conclusions he draws from minimal evidence, I think you will appreciate these comments! If you’ve never read Gladwell’s work, you probably wouldn’t even notice the critiques.