Our fascination with the brain seems to come from a longing to make psychology more like a hard science and hence, we assume, more useful. Physics gave us electricity, skyscrapers, and the Internet. Chemistry gave us medicine and more fresh food. Psychology is still taking baby steps, designing empirical tests of unsurprising observations. It may be too much to expect science to reliably save marriages, but how desperately we need the secret to stopping people from burning others alive.
What we do know is, indeed, fascinating. Great Myths of the Brain is a kind of primer that teaches neuroscience by debunking neurononsense, beginning with ancient ideas like “Thought Resides in the Heart.” You’ll learn that much of the neuroscience you hear is trivial or wrong, and also see the useful research threads to follow. The word “brain” isn’t entirely giving us false hope. A neuroscientist-turned-writer, Christian Jarrett is editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, a blogger, and the father of baby twins. His elegant, enthusiastic prose doesn’t shy from controversy.
Michael Corballis, author of The Wandering Mind, is a New Zealand neuroscientist best known for his thesis that language evolved from gestures. He has the grace and wit of a successful man approaching 80. If you’ve ever heard someone say something such as “So what if I’m spacey? I’m creative,” he would reassuringly agree.
Although The Wandering Mind is a conversational essay, it doesn’t wander. Corballis, like Jarrett, distills to essentials. Memory, thinking about the future, reading other people, storytelling, dreams, hallucinations, and creativity each get a chapter. Each is a function of our “default-mode network,” a large swath of brain not dedicated to perception or responses to the immediate environment. “The brain is a bit like a small town,” he explains, “with people milling around, going about their business. When some big event occurs, such as a football game, the people then flock to the football ground, while the rest of the town grows quiet.” Then we mill around again.
We are programmed to alternate between mind-wandering and paying attention. . . . [W]e need to escape the here and now, and consider possible futures, mull over past mistakes, understand how other people’s minds work.
You can get your best ideas washing dishes. There are studies.
Corballis is polite, and it may be his comforting bent that led him to avoid the most troublesome question about wandering minds. Noting that “the Freudian idea that dreams are symbolic disguises of shameful or forbidden thoughts has largely lost favor,” he writes that dreams “may serve . . . to activate the unconscious, to create the internal terrains for later mental meanderings.” I wish he had addressed whether (or how) the unconscious may take the controls, still the core claim of much psychotherapy and a major theme in behavioral finance—which has convinced me that even people who consider themselves financially sophisticated have no idea what they’re doing with their money. In Corballis’s most revelatory chapter, on hallucinations, he suggests that “perception is fundamentally driven from within, with information from the world serving merely to guide what we see, hear and smell.” He adds, characteristically, “Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but hallucination tells us that there’s more to perception than meets the eye.”
Jarrett addresses aspects of this huge thought as well. Under “Myth #33: The Brain Perceives the World As It Is,” he breaks the news that we’re actually living a self-created “virtual reality experience. . . . The truth is that we catch mere glimpses of physical reality.” Three or four times every second, for example, you close your eyes and see nothing—a mechanism to prevent blurring when you shift your gaze. To compensate, your brain seems to backdate your sense of how long objects have been in their current locations. It takes about a tenth of a second for information to come in, but your brain hides the lag, “constantly predicting how the world probably is now based on how it was a moment ago.”