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Cool Books


Nobody knows how our brains “recall the past, perceive the present and imagine the future,” but scientists are getting a handle on it, reports Daniel J. Levitin in the Wall Street Journal (2/4/12). What makes each of us unique is rooted in the “different genes that influence brain development, and accordingly, behavior.”

But that’s not the whole story. “Genes alone cannot explain how your brain got to be the way it is,” writes Sebastian Seung in Connectome. “As you lay nestled in your mother’s womb, you already possessed your genome but not yet the memory of your first kiss.”

In other words: “Neuroscientists posit that all of our hopes, desires, beliefs and experiences are encoded in the brain as patterns of neural firings ... A new approach to studying brains and individual differences involves making maps of how neurons connect to one another ... The next big frontier is mapping those trillions of neural connection patterns to brain states. By observing a particular network of neurons firing, researchers should know (in theory) whether you are thinking about love or money, beer or burgers.”

These connections — or connectomes — determine what makes you different from anyone else. They shape your hopes and fears, your likes and dislikes. “Information,” says Sebastian, “is the new soul.”

The Power of Habit

Habits form — and can be changed — in a variety of ways, writes Timothy D. Wilson in a New York Times review of The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg (3/11/12). Charles pretty much sticks to one type of habit formation, the “habit loop,” in which “an environmental cue automatically leads to a behavioral routine that results in a reward.”

He then applies the concept “as a framework to understand such diverse behaviors as why people buy a certain brand of toothpaste, become addicted to cigarettes and alcohol and prefer particular songs on the radio.”

The problem with this, says Timothy, “is that it sidesteps crucial distinctions about why people behave ‘mindlessly,’ distinctions we need to understand if we want to change those behaviors.” For example, behavior can be changed through repetition: “If we acquire a bad habit this way it is very hard to change, because its grooves are so well worn in our minds. We have to painstakingly practice a better response that wears a new groove.”

There are also habits involving “more cognitive activity, namely people’s interpretation of a situation according to what it means for them and how it fits into the narratives they tell themselves. These behaviors are habitual in the sense that people have chronic ways of interpreting the world.”

While Charles’s “single framework” for behavior-change “misses some of the nuances of how to change behavior effectively, readers will find useful advice about how to change at least some of their bad habits.”

The Righteous Mind

Jonathan Haidt “argues that people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational,” and “sets out to trash the modern faith in reason,” reports William Saletan in the New York Times (3/25/12). Jonathan makes this case in The Righteous Mind, in which he identifies “six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity.”

The prevailing worldviews, says Jonathan, don’t begin with the individual but with “the group, or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They honor status, suppress self-expression, assume interdependence and prize order over equality.” He says they “are common in history and across the globe because they fit human nature.”

In American political culture, Jonathan says the right wing embraces all six principles, while the left primarily embraces only care, fairness and liberty. But he thinks both sides contribute “insights to which the other should listen,” and that we need to “organize society so that reason and intuition interact in healthy ways.”

He advises us to stop using “reason to parry opposing views” and spend more time reflecting on each other’s perspectives. Among other things, he recommends that members of Congress move their families to Washington so they can socialize and “build a friendly basis on which to cooperate.”

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