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Mind Hacks Tom Stafford and Matt Webb
Published by O'Reilly Media
400 pages
£ 17.50
Published: 7th December 2004
reviewed by Mick Farmer
   in the June 2005 issue (pdf), (html)

First off, I should mention that this is not a computer book in the popular Hacks series; it's a book about our brain and the psychological experiments devised that let us learn about how the brain functions.

Secondly, Josette invited me to an event at Foyles Bookshop (in London) where the authors attempted to demonstrate some of the more intriguing experiments, with mixed success. It was a bit like ``The Odd Couple'' with Tom playing the role of Oscar (Walter Matthau in the film version) and Matt playing the Felix role (Jack Lemmon). Matt is the serious one, explaining things carefully and methodically, while Tom is the psychologist who leaps around demonstrating this, then that, then something else. Anyway, the wine was nice.

Now down to business. This really is an amazing book! I thought initially that it would be a quick, easy read with a quick look round the numerous web sites housing many of the experiments. No way. I found myself reading each ``hack'' carefully, trying to comprehend the reasoning behind the experiment and the results, and then visiting nearly all the web sites to see what else was available.

It's not possible to describe each of the one hundred hacks, but I'll mention some that I really liked. The book consists of ten chapters (Inside the Brain, Seeing, Attention, Hearing and Language, Integrating, Moving, Reasoning, Togetherness, Remembering, and Other People). As you can see, most of the chapters are devoted to our various senses.

Hack #23 (Seeing) illustrates how our brain relies on previous experience to reconstruct three dimensions out of two. In the diagram on the left we use our knowledge of illumination and shadow to perceive that square B is the brighter of the two. However, the diagram on the right shows that both squares are actually identical in colour.

Controversially, hack #43 (Attention) maintains that we can improve our visual attention by playing video games.

Hack #51 (Hearing and Language) illustrates that we read a sentence phrase by phrase, rather than word by word. Sentences become cumbersome if they overrun the buffer required to parse them, and that depends on the lengths of the individual phrases. Consider the authors' simple example:

It's grammatically correct, but a comma has been omitted. Note that you have to read the sentence again to break it into different phrases; you can't juggle the words in your head.

Hack #62 (Moving) is the classic broken escalator phenomenon. We know it's broken, but the brain's autopilot takes over regardless. Our brain cancels out the sensory consequences of its own actions.

I'll finish on hack #71 (Reasoning) which has generated an awful lot of hot air since 1990. It illustrates how bad we are at thinking about probabilities.

You're a participant on a game show, hoping to win a big prize. There are three doors, behind one of which is the prize, and behind the other two are goats (booby prizes). You choose a door. The game-show host throws open one of the other doors (not yours) to reveal a goat. He then gives you the choice of sticking with your choice or switching to the other unopened door. Do you stick or switch?

The answer is that you should switch. Read this book to see why or see vos Savant's book referred to below [1].

As you can tell, I really enjoyed this book. If you want to know more about how your brain works, then this is the book for you.

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