New Books on the Brain and What It Can and Can’t Do

The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain
By Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler
233 pp. Norton. $27.95.

Should we always advocate for truth? History tells us false beliefs can be dangerous, leading to genocide, racism and attacks on democracy. However, they can also bring harmony and help us thrive. Consider the health benefits of placebos or the comfort of religion. It is not the veracity, but the consequence, of a belief that makes it good or bad, Vedantam and Mesler argue. “Life, like evolution and natural selection, ultimately doesn’t care about what’s true. It cares about what works.” And if you believe in science you must acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that false beliefs are necessary for people’s well-being, as they often help reduce anxiety and increase motivation. “You can’t go around thinking of yourself as a breathing piece of defecating meat. It gets in the way of happy hour.”

Accepting that people’s beliefs depend less on evidence than on their hopes, emotions and tribal affiliations is vital for addressing global threats such as climate change. Persuading people to act requires us to go along with how the brain works, rather than working against it. Fighting irrational beliefs with numbers and graphs alone is ineffective. Instead, we must fulfill people’s desires and need for belonging. True to their thesis, Vedantam and Mesler pepper hard data with compelling stories to make their case. Vedantam’s empathy and intuitive understanding of human nature, which shine on his popular “Hidden Brain” podcast, come through in “Useful Delusions.”

A New Theory of Intelligence
By Jeff Hawkins
272 pp. Basic Books. $30.

“A Thousand Brains” takes us on a journey from the evolution of our brain to the extinction of our species. Along the way Hawkins beautifully describes neuroanatomy and landmark discoveries in neuroscience, including the existence of cells that signal our location in space and populations of neurons that process information by “voting” to reach a group decision. The book is framed around Hawkins’s theory of intelligence, according to which columns in the neocortex encode thousands of “reference frames.” However, the theory has yet to be empirically tested, and he does not spend much time detailing it or how it could account for high-level functions such as language and thought.

Hawkins, the inventor of the PalmPilot and a neuroscience researcher, aims to crack human intelligence in order to develop artificial intelligence. The problem with current A.I. systems, he explains, is that they can solve only a limited set of predefined problems. They do not possess general intelligence as humans do. According to Hawkins this is because they are unable to represent knowledge. Part of Hawkins’s motivation for developing “true” A.I. is to prepare for human extinction.

Although not predicting when or how we will meet this fate, Hawkins advises readers to craft an “estate plan for humanity” now. Homo sapiens may try to dodge extinction by habitation of other planets, but Hawkins is not optimistic. Instead, he suggests, we would be wise to use machines to preserve human knowledge for the benefit of other beings, even if we are unable to sustain mankind. With this and other ideas Hawkins keeps the reader constantly engaged.

The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
By Adam Grant
307 pp. Viking. $28.

We live in a world where conversations about complex issues, such as infectious disease and climate change, revolve around 280-character statements. Nuance is lost, and opinions rapidly radicalize. This makes the age-old problem of inflexible thinking — in which people have difficulty altering their beliefs even in the face of contradictory evidence — particularly timely.

In “Think Again,” Grant, a psychology professor at Wharton and the author of “Originals” and “Give and Take,” urges us to constantly rethink our beliefs about politics, science, work and relationships. Grant believes we can simultaneously be confident in our ability to uncover the truth while acknowledging we may be wrong at present. We must convey our uncertainties and information gaps to others, he argues. To achieve such “confident humility,” Grant advises us to “seek out information that goes against our views” and “resist the temptation to preach, prosecute or politick.” We should, he suggests, “think like a scientist.”

To illustrate the scientific method of rethinking and revising, Grant describes a study in which he attempted to reduce animosity between Yankee and Red Sox fans. He began by encouraging the rivals to consider their commonalities. This strategy had worked in other contexts but failed in this case. “We both love baseball,” they agreed, but “they like the wrong team.” Attempts to humanize the competitors were also unsuccessful. The antagonism was finally lowered by highlighting the arbitrary nature of the animosity (team allegiance was due to random factors, such as place of birth). No single tool is guaranteed to always help us rethink our views, habits and preferences. This is why we need a diverse set of strategies, which is what Grant offers.

A Journey to the Source of Consciousness
By Mark Solms
415 pp. Norton. $28.95.

What is consciousness, how is it generated and why do we need it? These are the big questions Solms, a South African neuropsychologist, tackles in “The Hidden Spring.” There are many things our brain can do unconsciously. For example, we can subliminally process images and words, and approximate the speed of an oncoming car to determine whether to cross the road without being aware we are doing so. There is one thing, according to Solms, that requires consciousness: feelings. You can be unaware of why you are feeling angry or happy, he argues, but you can’t feel angry or happy without being aware of it. He concludes that emotion is “the foundational form of consciousness.”

Emotions are valenced — good or bad — which signals to us what should be approached and what should be avoided. Our most burning needs are prioritized by focusing our attention on a certain feeling so that we take immediate action to fulfill them: When we feel thirsty, we look for water; when we feel lust, we search for a mate. These basic needs and emotions are evolutionarily ancient and rely on subcortical structures deep in our brain. According to Solms, this means most other animals are likely conscious too.

“The Hidden Spring” often requires the reader to work hard to follow Solms’s arguments. But readers who stick with it will be rewarded with interesting ideas about what it means to feel, think and be.

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