Book review: Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio R. Damasio.
This book describes many aspects of human minds in ways that aren’t wrong, but the parts that seem novel don’t have important implications.
He devotes a sizable part of the book to describing how memory works, but I don’t understand memory any better than I did before.
His perspective often seems slightly confusing or wrong. The clearest example I noticed was his belief (in the context of pre-historic humans) that “it is inconceivable that concern [as expressed in special treatment of the dead] or interpretation could arise in the absence of a robust self”. There may be good reasons for considering it improbable that humans developed burial rituals before developing Damasio’s notion of self, but anyone who is familiar with Julian Jaynes (as Damasio is) ought to be able to imagine that (and stranger ideas).
He pays a lot of attention to the location in the brain of various mental processes (e.g. his somewhat surprising claim that the brainstem plays an important role in consciousness), but rarely suggests how we could draw any inferences from that about how normal minds behave.
Book review: The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn’t Always the Smart One, by Satoshi Kanazawa.
This book is entertaining and occasionally thought-provoking, but not very well thought out.
The main idea is that intelligence (what IQ tests measure) is an adaptation for evolutionarily novel situations, and shouldn’t be positively correlated with cognitive abilities that are specialized for evolutionarily familiar problems. He defines “smart” so that it’s very different from intelligence. His notion of smart includes a good deal of common sense that is unconnected with IQ.
He only provides one example of an evolutionarily familiar skill which I assumed would be correlated with IQ but which isn’t: finding your way in situations such as woods where there’s some risk of getting lost.
He does make and test many odd predictions about high IQ people being more likely to engage in evolutionarily novel behavior, such as high IQ people going to bed later than low IQ people. But I’m a bit concerned at the large number of factors he controls for before showing associations (e.g. 19 factors for alcohol use). How hard would it be to try many combinations and only report results when he got conclusions that fit his prediction? On the other hand, he can’t be trying too hard to reject all evidence that conflicts with his predictions, since he occasionally reports evidence that conflicts with his predictions (e.g. tobacco use).
He reports that fertility is heritable, and finds that puzzling. He gives a kin selection based argument saying that someone with many siblings ought to put more effort into the siblings reproductive success and less into personally reproducing. But I see no puzzle – I expect people to have varying intuitions about whether the current abundance of food will last, and pursue different strategies, some of which will be better if food remains abundant, and others better if overpopulation produces a famine.
He’s eager to sound controversial, and his chapter titles will certainly offend some people. Sometimes those are backed up by genuinely unpopular claims, sometimes the substance is less interesting. E.g. the chapter title “Why Homosexuals Are More Intelligent than Heterosexuals” says there’s probably no connection between intelligence and homosexual desires, but there’s a connection between intelligence and how willing people are to act on those desires (yawn).
Here is some evidence against his main hypothesis.
A post titled Neanderthals had differently organized brains reports evidence that Neanderthal brains did not have a larger volume devoted to intelligence (or at least that part of intelligence needed to handle social interactions in large groups) than humans.
A key fact is that “eye-socket size is correlated with latitude” – at least within a species.
Neanderthals were adapted to high latitudes, and had larger eye-sockets.
That suggests a relatively large part of their brain was devoted to the visual cortex, and it seems somewhat plausible to suspect that much of that involved low-level processing needed to make up for darker conditions at higher latitudes.
So Neanderthals’ larger skull size doesn’t imply any important advantage.
Book review: My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey by Jill Bolte Taylor.
This book provides a unique description of the differences between the left and right sides of the brain, because she experienced about as big a decrease in the functioning of her left hemisphere as anyone who has recovered enough to write about it. It’s a very quick read, but didn’t have as much information as I’d hoped.
She makes plausible claims (with minimal mysticism) that her stroke helped her experience nirvana and continues to help her choose to have the best parts of her brain dominate her personality. It makes me wish there were something better than the Wada test that would enable the rest of us to more safely experiment with such experiences.
It helps me understand what I’m not accomplishing when I try (with little success) to meditate, but it appears that her advice for how to do better only works for people who are starting with a mind that is less strongly dominated by the left brain than mine.
It’s important to remember that the parts of her brain that are reporting the benefits of her experience are the ones that survived. We have little information about how the parts of her brain that died would have evaluated the experience.