mostly nonfiction listener
"Traffic" freaked me out. I knew that 40,000 people died each year on our roads. And I knew that a car accident was the most likely way that trauma would encroach into my world. Vanderbilt gives me lots more things to worry about (like Dr's have the 2nd highest accident rate, pick-up trucks are dangerous to everyone else, new cars have higher accident rates then older cars, and intersections are bad news for bikers, runners, and drivers.
This is a book I'd like my girls to read as a prerequisite to getting their license (and I'll install the driver cam that Vanderbilt writes about being effective in teaching young drivers defensive skills).
Read the book. Slow down on the roads.
Wray Herbert's engaging On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits has three main messages:
1. Evolved Brains: Our minds (which drive our thoughts, actions, and reactions), are evolved organs, constructed by adaptation over long periods of time to our environments.
2. Brain / Modern-Environment Mismatch: Unfortunately, our brains evolved in very different environments in which we now find ourselves. This leads to our reactions, biases, and thoughts to be too often mismatched and maladapted to circumstances in a 21st century world.
3. Choice with Knowledge: However, if we understand where our immediate reactions and thoughts come from, we can overcome irrational action and make choices that benefit our long-term goals.
Herbert is a journalist, reporting on the academic work of behavioral economists and experimental psychologists. The strength of On Second Thought is the breadth in which psychological and behavioral theory and experimental results are examined. If you are interested in the academic literature on the limits of rational behavior (as I am), then On Second Thought is both an excellent primer and synthesizer.
Dan Ariely covers much of the same ground in Predictably Irrational and the The Upside of Irrationality, but did so in a much more nuanced, intimate, curious and personal manner.
On Second Thought would have been a better book if Herbert had some questions he wanted to answer, or things he wanted to figure out about himself, and was able to weave the research on decision making into a more compelling narrative.
Despite these quibbles, On Second Thought is a worthy addition to our "dumb us" and "getting our minds around our brains" bookshelves.
What if the real purpose of education should be to prepare our brains to function well throughout our lifespan? What if our explicit goals shift from creating brains that can operate well in the economy (or whatever other institutional missions we promote), to the goal of fostering cognitive reserves? What if promoting healthy brains was the best mechanism for creating productive citizens, and all the other values we believe in as educators and educational institutions were best served in service of the brain?
I'm starting to come to the conclusion that the brain, our brains, is a theme that should cut across all disciplines. That we should put the brain at the center of our educational system for purely selfish and self-interested reasons, namely that we all need do whatever we can to insure that we experience successful brain aging.
The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind, by Barbara Strauch is a wonderful book. Strauch is a generous and wise author, writing about the middle-age brain through a combination of stories and science that seems well calibrated to the brains of her readers.
We learn that while the middle-age brain may not have the rapid processing power of its younger version, these deficits are more than made up for by increased abilities in judgment, expertise, and effectiveness. Our middle-age brains see the world in a more positive light and accurate light, and are much better at juggling all the demands that life throws at us.
The big revelation of "The Grown-up Brain" is that we have within our power to determine much of the course of our own brain aging. Through diligent mental and physical exercise, a reasonable diet, and a positive orientation towards our work and relationships we can significantly and dramatically protect our brains against cognitive slow-downs and dementia.
A prediction: Over the next twenty-years our colleges and universities will make a change from teaching to prepare for the job market to teaching to promote cognitive reserves. Innovative educational institutions will advertise a curriculum that is demonstrated to promote long-term cognitive health. We will begin to escape from the idea of economic scarcity, and start embracing the idea of lifetime cognitive scarcity - with educational programs designed to foster cognitive abundance.
This shift will require that the study of the brain become deeply embedded throughout all of our disciplines. We will talk about the brain when we think about teaching, learning and research. We will see our fitness centers and dining halls as tools to promote lifetime brain health. We will understand the mission of our institutions as providing our students the tools, habits, knowledge and fundamentals they will need to encourage and promote successful brain aging. Our rankings will be based on brain health related metrics, on the inputs that predict cognitive surplus. We will look back in disbelief at a time when our institutions took the brain for granted, and did not design our programs and environments explicitly to promote lifetime brain health.
Ardent Audible listener with a long commute!
The first time I remember evil – real evil – was more than 40 years ago, when I heard of awful things a boy down the block had done to a cat. I was too young to put a name to it, and the boy was spoken of in whispers. We were told to stay far away from him, and I did, crossing the street if he was on the way to grade school at the same time I was. He disappeared from the neighborhood several months later, and I am still relieved I never saw him again.
About ten years later, I put a name to evil, at least in fiction, reading Stephen King’s “Carrie”. The true evil wasn’t Carrie herself – it was Chris Hargensen, the beautiful, taunting classmate; and Margaret White, Carrie’s mother. Both had a complete lack of empathy for Carrie – and for anyone else.
In “The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty”, Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D., a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge, argues that all we consider evil presents as a lack of empathy. A lack of empathy can be momentary, chronic or innate, and to some extent, conditioned by being around others with a lack of empathy . The consequences can be disastrous. Baron-Cohen starts with the Holocaust as an example. Since research recently determined more than 40,000 Nazi ghettos and death camps were in operation, his conclusions have merit.
In this book, Baron-Cohen discusses signs and symptoms to some extent, but his emphasis is the neuroscience of evil. Baron-Cohen discusses the regions of the brain controlling empathy response, and how physical damage, fetal development, and environmental factors can affect these areas, causing them to function differently than those of empathetic people. Baron-Cohen does a good job at discussing the malfunctioning areas of the brain. As a layperson, I had to listen to those sections several times to understand what he was talking about.
Since reading “Carrie” more than 30 years ago, I’ve run into a lot of actual people who completely lack empathy. I have wondered the whole time how that happens. Setting aside the theological theory, this book explains at least some of it.
I enjoyed the narration, and the unedited use of British terms. And yes, for anyone wondering, Simon Baron-Cohen is Sacha Baron-Cohen’s cousin – and Simon, in a very apropos discussion later in the book, mentions Sacha’s work.
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