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Mind Hacks

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Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, or some scientist has proven that we only use about 10% of our brains. And if only we could learn to harness the remaining 90% of that untapped potential, there’s no telling what we would be capable of doing. Right? Er, well, actually – no. As the authors of Mind Hacks reveal, this is one of those things that many people believe (according to some surveys, as much as 50% of the population), but it has no basis in fact. In truth, our brains use every neuron they have in processing information – as the authors put it, if you don’t believe that, try removing a portion of your brain and see how well the remaining tissue functions.

Mind Hacks is all about giving the brain its due. “The brain is a fearsomely complex information-processing environment,” the authors write. It’s not a clear mechanical system like a computer; the same input won’t always lead to the same output, and it isn’t really possible to say that “this bit of the brain is solely responsible for function X.”

In short, punchy sections, the authors delve into such heady topics as neuropsychology, cognitive psychology, and other techniques for studying the brain. According to authors Stafford and Webb, neuroscience is set to explode into the public consciousness over the next decade, and the study of brain biology through scanning, computational modeling, and a host of other techniques will help researchers discover where, why, and how the brain makes all sorts of things happen.

Organized as a series of “hacks,” each hack (100 in total) represents a tip, trick, or experiment about how the human brain works in the context of vision, motor skills, attention, cognition, and subliminal perception. It could be a tip on why people don’t work like elevator buttons (hint: people respond to more intense signals, but elevators don’t, even though we often assume that they should, which is why we punch the stupid button so many times). There are more complicated hacks on things like understanding visual processing (and “just how nonsequential it all really is”) and sections on understanding how the brain filters shadow and light in certain ways to provide shading, depth, and more.

As a writer (and former English student), I found the hack on “memory-buffer overrun” while reading to be quite interesting.

When you’re reading a sentence, you don’t understand it word by word, but rather phrase by phrase. Phrases are groups of words that can be bundled together, and they’re related by the rules of grammar. A noun phrase will include nouns and adjectives, and a verb phrase will include a verb and a noun, for example. These phrases are the building blocks of language, and we naturally chunk sentences into phrase blocks just as we chunk visual images into objects.

What this means is that we don’t treat every word individually as we hear it; we treat words as parts of phrases and have a buffer (a very short-term memory) that stores the words as they come in, until they can be allocated to a phrase. Sentences become cumbersome not if they’re long, but if they overrun the buffer required to parse them, and that depends on how long the individual phrases are.

The authors then say to read this sentence:

While Bob ate an apple was in the basket.

The absence of commas or other “buffer” indicators means that you may have to read the sentence a time or two to get it right, simply because the mind parses the first part (“While Bob ate an apple”) as one “chunk” of information – but does so incorrectly given the rest of the sentence. This is an excellent example of why proper grammar is so important: rules of grammar are actually designed to help create “phrase boundaries” that assist in properly identifying and processing the information in a sentence.

Other tips, such as why we give certain words to certain things (the so-called “frob-twiddle-tweak continuum”), or how we are capable of missing something like a gorilla running through a group of basketball players just because we’ve been asked to count the number of passes they make before shooting, or how video games can improve the “attentional mechanisms” that sort and edit visual information, all offer intriguing insights into how we process the incredible array of information around us.

All in all, Mind Hacks is a rewarding mind trip, one that stretches the boundaries of what we know about how the brain works and playfully presents that information in an engaging, thought-provoking way.

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About Bill Wallo

  • You’re all about the hacks, Bill! Nice review and very interesting sounding book. It’s amazing to learn about how the brain processes information.

  • This book review has been selected for Advance.net. You’ll be able to find this and other Blog Critics reviews at such places at Cleveland.com’s Book Reviews column.

  • uao

    I killed a spammer in Reno, just to watch him die.


    Cuidado¡, existe una loca que se hace llamar Jose Luis Piguave P. esta ultima letra no sabemos de que sera, a veces se hace llamar la NENA en el MSN, es un verdader HOMO, cuidado.

  • John

    You’re all about the hacks, Bill! Nice review and very interesting sounding book. It’s amazing to learn about how the brain processes information.