"Mind Hacks: Tips & Tricks for Using Your Brain"
by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb
Reading history and reviews
Finished in 2008How long did it take to read this book? I remember starting it back towards the end of June, and finally finishing it mid-September. That's not to say that it's a bad book, or even particularly long - I'd been on a few trips where I'd decided that it was just a bit too large to take with me, and as a result several weeks went by when I didn't read a word.
I'm not sure how I would describe this book really - it's superficially a bit like one of O'Reilly's computing "cookbooks", at least in its format. It consists of about a hundred "hacks" which essentially each describe a particular neurological or psychological effect, explaining how it manifests itself, various experiments that have been performed to investigate it (including some you can try at home) and possible explanations as to how the effect might have arisen based on the research.
In spite of the title, the hacks in this case are not so much things that you can do to your brain but are more likely to be tricks employed by the brain to shortcut time-consuming processing, for example by always assuming that a light falls from above, or by making you react instinctively when something "looms" in your vision. There's also a lot of interesting stuff in here that basically goes back to our primitive roots as animals trying to survive in a hostile world, for example we appear to have an instinct to assume that animate entities are behind events. This is probably useful in an environment where noises in the forest might be some predator coming after you, but it might also explain our readiness (as a species) to believe in supernatural forces or even gods.
So it's a book filled with a lot of fascinating information, and it felt quite far reaching in it's coverage of lots of different aspects of the brain and the mind. At the same time personally I also found all that detail a little bit overwhelming, and in the end I think that's why I remember a number of individual hacks rather than having a coherent picture of how all these things actually stack up as a whole. Still I'm fascinated by how many things I've heard or read about since finishing this book which remind me of something that I've read, including most recently an experiment investigating out-of-body experiences reported by cardiac arrest victims at various hospitals in the UK (something that is also mentioned in this book). So I can very easily imagine returning to this again sometime in the future.