ALPHABETICAL BRAIN® VOCABULARY
HUMANIST GALAXY
OF SECULAR SCIENCE STARS
CORDELIA FINE

May 21, 2022

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A MIND OF ITS OWN:
How your brain distorts and deceives
by Cordelia Fine.
W.W. Norton, 2006
(i-viii, 243 pages)
[Subject Term: Self-deception

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    Quote = "Cordelia Fine is a research associate at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the Australian National University... The brain routinely disapproves of other people's behavior (how could he do that?), while at the same time interpreting one's own actions in the best possible light (I would never do that!). It also projects stereotypes onto others that reflect prejudicial beliefs rather than objective reality." (Paraphrased slightly by webmaster from Publisher's Weekly Review)

    Quote = "Fine offers a summary of recent brain literature related to psychological experiments which suggest that the brain distorts and disguises. She convincingly integrates recent literature from John Bargh, Roy Baumeister, Daniel Gilbert, David Rosenthal, and many others who have been illuminating the myriad ways and reasons the brain distorts information. The brain deceives in order to make one feel better about oneself, to simplify navigation of the social world, to keep one relatively 'sane,' or because one does not know any better!" (Paraphrased slightly by webmaster from Choice Review)

    Quote = "Cordelia Fine documents a wealth of surprising information about the brain in this readable account that adopts a good-humored tone about the brain's failings without underestimating the damage they do. She shows that the brain distorts reality in order to save us from the ego-destroying effects of failure and pessimism." (From publisher's blurb)

    Quote = "A delightfully unsparing look into what your brain is doing behind your back. In recent years, we have heard a lot about the extraordinary workings of our "100-billion-celled" brain: its amazing capacities to regulate all sensation, perception, thinking, and feeling; the power to shape all experience and define our identity. Indeed, the brain's power is being confirmed every day in new studies and research. But there is a brain we do not generally hear about, a brain we might not want to hear about... the 'prima donna within'." (Selected by webmaster from publisher's summary)

    Quote = "Positive self-esteem, whether about one's morality, rationality, altruism, emotional maturity, or tolerance, takes a drubbing in this book. It is an unsettlingly entertaining tour of experimental psychology, which diabolically puts normality to the test. Cordelia Fine describes negative human traits and perceptively reflects on the brain's subconscious thoughts. Such thoughts can produce pernicious habits such as blaming victims. In various ways, Fine writes, the brain is protecting the self from threats to its self — exaltation, defending against the capriciousness of the world (hence the sense of justice) or disbelief (hence traits of stubbornness and irrationality). An edifying exploration, wryly and ruefully expressed." (Reviewed by Gilbert Taylor for Booklist Review)

    Quote = "What is most alarming about all of this research is how the imperceptible changes in us occur without our conscious permission. The man with even the most praiseworthy attitude toward women is susceptible to the subtle effects of the sexist billboards that bombard him on his way to work... When the aggressive bad guy in the action movie is black, even the sincere subscriber to color-blind principles becomes triggered to misconstrue the intent of the black man who stops him to ask the time. Our values and principles offer scant defense against the insidious effects of our mass media and especially the social media environments." (Paraphrased slightly by webmaster from Epilogue, 206)

    Quote = "Recognizing and acknowledging our vulnerability to the many common machinations of the brain provides modest scope to guard against them. Some sources of "mental contamination," as it has been called, can be sidestepped by simple avoidance. If you do not want to unconsciously take on the values of women’s magazines, do not buy them. If you do not want to be biased by racist expectations of how your black students will perform, mark papers anonymously. If you do not want to be distracted by the trumped up claims of ads, do not watch them. And if you do not want your children unconsciously being exposed to violent, sexist, racist, or grossly acquisitive messages, shelter your young ones from them whenever you can and explain why you are doing so." (Paraphrased by webmaster from Epilogue, 207)
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BOOK OUTLINE
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Note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages

INTRODUCTION (1-2)

1) THE VAIN BRAIN — For a softer, kinder reality (3-29)

2) THE EMOTIONAL BRAIN — Sweaty fingers in all the pies (31-53)

3) THE IMMORAL BRAIN — The terrible toddler within (55-78)

4) THE DELUDED BRAIN — A slapdash approach to the truth (79-104)

5) THE PIGHEADED BRAIN — Loyalty a step too far (105-127)

6) THE SECRETIVE BRAIN — Exposing the guile of the mental butler (129-150)

7) THE WEAK-WILLED BRAIN — The prima donna within (151-176)

8) THE BIGOTED BRAIN — "Thug... Tart... Slob... Nerd... Airhead" (177-200)

EPILOGUE — The vulnerable brain (201-209)

note = "What is most alarming about all of this research is how these imperceptible changes in us occur without our conscious permission. The man with even the most praiseworthy attitude toward women is susceptible to the subtle effects of the sexist billboards that bombard him on his way to work... When the aggressive bad guy in the action movie is black, even the sincere subscriber to color-blind principles becomes triggered to misconstrue the intent of the black man who stops him to ask the time. Our values and principles offer scant defense against the insidious effects of our environment. The remarkable exposés of the mind described in this book underline the importance of experimental psychology for our understanding of the world, other people, and ourselves. It is difficult, if not impossible, to point the finger at a single person and, with any degree of certainty, charge her with the crime of bias. Real-life situations are too complicated for us to be able to say, "You only think that parent should have custody of the child because of the way the question was phrased" or "You gave that employee a smaller bonus because she is a woman” or "You only chose that car because the car dealer plied you with free coffee and pastries." Indeed, thanks to our illusory sense of self-knowledge, these claims --- particularly if leveled at our selves --- seem ludicrous. But as we have seen, the psychology experiment --- by carefully manipulating the factor of interest --- can expose concrete and undeniable evidence of these strange and often unwelcome influences at work." (Selected by webmaster from Epilogue, 206-207)

note = "More hopefully, recognizing and acknowledging our vulnerability to the many common machinations of the brain provides modest scope to guard against them. Some sources of "mental contamination," as it has been called, can be sidestepped by simple avoidance. If you do not want to unconsciously take on the values of women’s magazines, do not buy them. If you do not want to be biased by racist expectations of how your black students will perform, mark papers anonymously. If you do not want distractedly to believe the trumped up claims of ads, do not watch them. And if you do not want your children unconsciously taking onboard violent, sexist, racist, or grossly acquisitive messages, shelter your young ones from them whenever you can and explain why you are doing so." (Selected by webmaster from Epilogue, 207)

note = "It is also a pleasure to inform you that, simply by reading this book, you have lightly armored yourself against attacks on the integrity of your judgments and behavior. Seriously, why not protect your friends and family too? Buy them all their own copy. Mental events that manipulate the emotions, moods, schemas, and stereotypes of our brains lose some of their effect when we are aware of their potential to influence us. Remember the experiment in Chapter 2 that described volunteers who were asked about their life satisfaction on rainy or sunny days? People asked about the weather beforehand were less affected by weather-induced mood when giving their ratings than were volunteers not alerted to the current climatic conditions. Remain mindful of your susceptibility! (Paraphrased slightly by webmaster from Epilogue, 207)

NOTES (211-231)

INDEX (233-243)

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR, SUMMARY,
AND BOOK DESCRIPTION

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SUMMARY = Cordelia Fine takes us on an insightful, rip-roaringly funny tour through the brain you never knew you had. This is a delightfully unsparing look into what your brain is doing behind your back. In recent years, we have heard a lot about the extraordinary workings of our 100-billion-celled brain: its amazing capacities to regulate all sensation, perception, thinking, and feeling. It even has the power to shape all experience and define our identity. But there is also a brain we do not generally hear about, a brain we might not want to hear about... the "prima donna within."

BOOK DESCRIPTION = The book exposes the mind's deceptions and explores how the mind defends and glorifies the ego. Cordelia Fine illustrates the brain's tendency to self-delusion with fascinating studies to support her arguments. The brain's power is being confirmed every day in new studies and research. Whether it be hindsight bias, wishful thinking, unrealistic optimism, or moral excuse-making, each of us has many inborn mind-bugs and ordinary prejudices that prevent us from seeing the truth about the world and ourselves. Fine claims that unknown to us, our brain is: vain, emotional, immoral, deluded, pigheaded, secretive, weak-willed, and bigoted. It pushes, pulls, twists, and warps our perceptions. Whether it be hindsight bias, wishful thinking, unrealistic optimism, or moral excuse-making, each of us has a slew of mind-bugs and ordinary prejudices that prevent us from seeing the truth about the world, the people around us, and ourselves. The book exposes the mind's deceptions and explores how the mind defends and glorifies the ego.

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EDITORIAL BOOK REVIEWS
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PUBLISHERS WEEKLY = Vain, immoral, bigoted: this is your brain in action, according to Fine, a research associate at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Australian National University. Fine documents a wealth of surprising information about the brain in this readable account that adopts a good-humored tone about the brain's failings without underestimating the damage they do. The brain, she shows, distorts reality in order to save us from the ego-destroying effects of failure and pessimism. For example, an optimist who fails at something edits the truth by blaming others for the failure and then takes complete credit for any successes. The brain also routinely disapproves of other people's behavior (how could he do that?), while at the same time interpreting one's own actions in the best possible light (I would never do that!). The brain also projects stereotypes onto others that reflect prejudicial beliefs rather than objective reality. Despite the firm hold these distortions have on our brains, Fine is not a pessimist. The path to overcoming stereotypes and other distortions of the brain, she says, may be gained through self-awareness and knowledge provided by experimental psychology, a field that explores and exposes unconscious mental influences.

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN = Many psychological studies show that on average, each of us believes we are above average compared with others—more ethical and capable, better drivers, better judges of character, and more attractive. Our weaknesses are, of course, irrelevant. Such self distortion protects our egos from harm, even when nothing could be further from the truth. Our brains are the trusted advisers we should never trust. This "distorting prism" of self-knowledge is what Cordelia Fine, a psychologist at the Australian National University, calls our "vain brain." Fine documents the lengths to which a human brain will go to bias perceptions in the perceiver's favor. When explaining to ourselves and others why something has gone well or badly, we attribute success to our own qualities, while shedding responsibility for failure. Our brains bias memory and reason, selectively editing truth to inflict less pain on our fragile selves. They also shield the ego from truth with "retroactive pessimism," insisting the odds were stacked inevitably toward doom.

Alternatively, the brain of "self-handicappers" concocts nonthreatening excuses for failure. Furthermore, our brains warp perceptions to match emotions. In the extreme, patients with Cotard delusion actually believe they are dead. So "pigheaded" is the brain about protecting its perspective that it defends cherished positions regardless of data. The "secretive" brain unconsciously directs our lives via silent neural equipment that creates the illusion of willfulness. "Never forget," Fine says, "that your unconscious is smarter than you, faster than you, and more powerful than you. It may even control you. You will never know all of its secrets."

So what to do? Begin with self-awareness, Fine says, then manage the distortions as best one can. We owe it to ourselves "to lessen the harmful effects of the brain's various shams," she adds, while admitting that applying this lesson to others is easier than to oneself. Ironically, one category of persons shows that it is possible to view life through a clearer lens. "Their self-perceptions are more balanced, they assign responsibility for success and failure more even-handedly, and their predictions for the future are more realistic. These people are living testimony to the dangers of self-knowledge," Fine asserts. "They are the clinically depressed." Case in point. – Richard Lipkin.

Cordelia Fine's book reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" — it is filled with surprising and counterintuitive observations about how the brain really works. Fine's thesis is that our brains do a fine job of deluding us — making us think that we are smart, attractive, above average, considerate, unbiased and blissfully free of the shortcomings and moral defects that plague other people. It's a good thing, too — as Fine points out in one striking paragraph, "there is a category of people who get unusually close to the truth about themselves and the world... They are the clinically depressed." Ignorance really is bliss!

With a witty style, Fine reviews the psychological experiments that show that our moods and judgments can be dramatically influenced by external factors like beautiful weather or by what someone just said or did to us. Our brains make up lots of excuses after the fact to explain what we did and why, or to shift blame to others, all in an effort to make it seem that we are good people who are in control of our lives. We end up being bigoted, pigheaded, immoral and emotional, even when we think we are none of those things. On the whole, it is not a very flattering picture, although Fine does point to some encouraging studies suggesting that some of the brain's worst excesses (e.g., bigotry) can be curbed by careful attention to our thoughts — of course, in other contexts (such as trying to fall asleep), focusing on our thoughts can make things worse!

BOOKLIST REVIEW = Positive self-esteem, whether about one's morality, rationality, altruism, emotional maturity, or tolerance, takes a drubbing in this book. It is an unsettlingly entertaining tour of experimental psychology, which diabolically puts normality to the test. One result ripped empathy to shreds: in a 1963 obedience experiment learned by psychology students, Stanley Milgram showed how to turn anyone into a torturer. Built around discussions of particular experiments, Fine's account illustrates the clinical with personal anecdotes featuring her two-year-old boy.

The kid's adamant sense of right and wrong, emotional volatility, and meanness represent every person's terrible toddler within. Fine describes negative human traits and perceptively reflects on the brain's subconscious thoughts, which can produce pernicious habits such as blaming victims. In various ways, Fine writes, the brain is protecting the self from threats to its self — exaltation, defending against the capriciousness of the world (hence the sense of justice) or disbelief (hence traits of stubbornness and irrationality). An edifying exploration, wryly and ruefully expressed. – Gilbert Taylor

CHOICE REVIEW = Fine (Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Australian National University) offers a summary of the literature that suggests the brain distorts and disguises. Though one is tempted to be outraged by such a set of assumptions and to declare one's own brain "above the fray," the author convincingly integrates the literature from John Bargh, Roy Baumeister, Daniel Gilbert, David Rosenthal, and scores of others who for years have been illuminating the myriad ways and reasons the brain distorts information: to make one feel better about oneself, to simplify navigation of the social world, to keep one relatively "sane," or because one does not know any better. Fine's writing style is whimsical, but her integration of the literature is scholarly and sound. This book will be an excellent resource for those studying social or cognitive psychology. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty and professionals; general readers. R. E. Osborne Texas State University – San Marcos

LIBRARY JOURNAL REVIEW = "The mind is an enchanted thing..." (says poet Marianne Moore), and it's also a bit of a trickster. And it is evidently quite prone to wishful thinking and illusions of grandeur, argues Fine, research associate at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.

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AMAZON BOOK REVIEWS
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[1] This book is full of lots of "aha!" moments, but it is not a self-help guide. The message sometimes seems to be "You are not really in control here — try to enjoy the ride!" That said, I draw one very important conclusion from this entertaining book: avoid spending time with scientists who are conducting psychology experiments. These people are apparently always testing things other than what they pretend to be testing, and your brain will invariably come out of the experiment looking rather shoddy and ill-mannered. You may protest that "It is not my brain!" --- in which case you definitely need to read Chapter 1 of the book.

[2] Cornelia Fine has retrieved a wealth of cognitive science and behavior studies to formulate some new ideas about how the human mind works. In a light, almost breezy style, she presents some fascinating insights. Whether "conscious" of it or not, her analysis validates Dennett's original premise, which is that ideas reside in the mind to be picked over and drawn upon when required. But who does the selecting?

The brain, she says, is a powerful organ. So powerful that, as the title states, it has "a mind of its own". There are patterns in the brain which lie either hidden or dormant, emerging sometimes when prompted by events, or remaining obscure even while driving our behavior. While she can't "place" these elements in the brain, they can be demonstrated through a variety of testing procedures or by examination of people suffering various forms of brain trauma. Her chapter titles depict the factors as "Vain Brain", "Deluded Brain", "Immoral Brain", "Bigoted Brain" and others. Each of these chapters describes how the brain manifests these conditions and, in some cases, where the trait originated. That many of these conditions can be formed in childhood and remain fixed in place even when countered by later information is little short of frightening. It's not quite confirmation of "the blank slate," but uncomfortably close. The brain, once matured, is amazingly resistant to later challenges.

Fine correctly opens the book with "The Vain Brain," since it is ourselves that concern us most. Even though the human species evolved to live group-oriented lives, our brains are overwhelmingly concerned with the individual they inhabit. We form opinions about ourselves, which become firmly entrenched even when there is good reason to modify that ego-centrism. When we succeed in any social competition, it seems only "natural," but when we fail, we rationalise the defeat in many ways. This attitude is carried through in domestic relations, work environments or any other social circumstance. Nearly every social interaction arises from each of us "negotiating from a position of strength". Yet, in "The Weak-willed Brain," we learn that we also provide ourselves with any excuse for failing to carry through on our intentions. Goal-seeking requires massive amounts of mental resources to achieve success, and the brain, which already consumes a fifth of our body's resources just to tick over, is easily wearied.

The author's sources in producing this book are many and varied. Brain injuries, whether externally caused or as the result of stroke or other lesion, have provided the basis for many insights on behavior. Thankfully, she doesn't trot out poor old Phineas Gage again, as so many others have done. Other victims of brain trauma are presented, which some experienced readers will recognize from other sources. The main support for her classifications relies on numerous clinical or academic experiments. As she stresses often, many of these lie on or over the border of ethical limits. Participants have been shocked - electrically and emotionally - and results carefully tabulated. Fine is rightly concerned about the long-term effects on some volunteers, as were the more aware experimenters.

Given what Fine reveals about the persistence of memory and its impact on "conscious" activity, her concern is well-founded. Yet, even those questionable experiments have demonstrated that much of what we believe is our personal expression of will is a false concept. We cannot dismiss the findings of such research because the data was achieved in a dodgy manner. As Fine explains, we must not assume we have full control of our own minds. The brain is "unscrupulous" and "unreliable" and we trust it at our peril. Stephen A. Haines – Ottawa, Canada – with apologies to Steven Pinker.

[3] Can You Trust Yourself To (2007) by Dr. Richard G. Petty, author MD and author of the book, Healing, Meaning and Purpose: The Magical Power of the Emerging Laws of Life = According to the story, in a survey taken several years ago, all incoming freshman at MIT were asked if they expected to graduate in the top half of their class. 97% responded that they did!

And another piece of research in 1989 compared mathematical competence in students in eight different countries. Korean students ranked the highest in mathematical skills, while those in the United States had the lowest rating. Yet the American students had the highest overall opinion of their ability, while the Koreans who had the best results had the lowest opinion of how they had done.

Most of us believe ourselves to be to be "above average" compared with most other people: better drivers, better at evaluating character, more ethical and capable. Indeed when people begin to feel that they are below average that alone can lead to a referral to a psychologist, for it may be a sign of depression or some other disorder.

How is it that we are so good at insulating ourselves against reality? That is the core question that Cordelia Fine tries to answer in this, ahem, fine book. She details — perhaps, at times, over-details — a number of fascinating research studies into the very common problem of self-deception and self-distortion. This is a problem that stretches beyond the confines of academic psychology into psychotherapy, personal and spiritual development, relationships and even politics. Then, she coins a nice term — our "Vain brain" — to capture the way in which we distort reality about ourselves and the ways in which the brain biases perception to favor the perceiver. It is a commonplace that when things are going well, we tend to attribute our success to our sterling qualities, while failures are more commonly a result of bad luck and trouble, the perfidy of others or that there were other "reasons" that staked the deck against us.

Cordelia claims that our brains have a remarkable ability to edit our memories and insights in such a way that it can constantly protect us from the truths that surround us!

She discusses the ways in which the brain warps perceptions to match emotions. She discusses one of the most bizarre things that you will see in clinical practice: the so-called "Cotard delusion" in which people believe that they, or parts of their bodies, are dead. It most often occurs in psychotic depression in the elderly: the depression drives the thought that they are dead.

One of the things that makes this book interesting is that Cordelia also proposes some ways of dealing with the problems of a "self-deception" driven by unconscious (or subconscious) processes: recognize and acknowledge your brain's scheming, and become aware of the ways in which your brain and mind play tricks upon you; develop greater self-awareness and work to see the world as it is. Though she does not explicitly say so, this is what spiritual teachers have been recommending for millennia.

She also mentions the way in which we can recruit our unconscious processes to fulfill unconscious aspirations. She does not go into very much detail about the "hows" of doing so, and that might be a good topic for her next book. This is a well-written, entertaining and engaging book that I recommend highly.

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