Why You Can't Trust Your Brain

Reading about cognitive science is intriguing—but a little scary, too.

Posted Feb 22, 2012

Let me begin this review of the author's unusually engaging contribution to the field, however, by stating that his provocative "headline," though intriguingly paradoxical, is clearly a misnomer. (And frankly, I suspect it may have been more his publisher's choice than his own.) Repeatedly, DiSalvo stresses that the decisions your brain seems pre-wired to make are—-or at least were in the distant past—based on their evolutionary value. Even now, following your natural mental dictates (i.e., acting in ways that induce "happiness" in the more primitive parts of your brain) may, at least to some extent, be beneficial.

But beware. When DiSalvo employs the term "happy," he does so ironically. For he's not referring to a euphoric brain but one that apparently would be fulfilled by a lifetime of stability, balance, clarity, certainty, consistency, simplicity, and social connection. In line with these native preferences, such a brain also evidences strong tendencies to give the highest priority to "avoiding loss, lessening risk, and averting harm." And this is the case even though these self-protective inclinations can be based on gross perceptual errors—and so end up defeating you.

As the many studies the author reports on depict, your brain isn't much drawn toward chaos. Or complexity, or ambiguity. It's much happier taking the path of, well, least reflection. In a word, it's rather lazy—defined not so much as indolence as inclined to conserve internal resources, by acting as passively as the situation might permit. Additionally, in our species' primal past, ample time to deliberate before reaching a decision might not have been available. So the ability to act instantaneously could have carried literal survival value.

What unifies the content of this remarkably diverse overview is DiSalvo's well laid-out thesis that your brain is likely to respond both adaptively and maladaptively to an immense variety of stimuli. So though sometimes it's safe (and may even be advisable) to give in to your brain's inborn predilections, at other times mindlessly following these preferences can get you into serious trouble. It can lead you to be deluded, deceived, defrauded, duped—you name it. And in certain instances, not actively challenging your automatic assumptions and prejudices can be fatal.

DiSalvo's overall "takeaway" (a word he himself frequently employs) isn't therefore for you to systematically overrule whatever makes your brain happy (as the book's title suggests), but to become more aware of your brain's innate tendencies, and then decide—based on careful analyzing the particular situation—what, finally, makes the most sense, or serves your best interests. He calls upon the reader to cultivate an attitude of caution, circumspection, and prudence. For unless you're scrupulously considering the individual person or circumstance you're dealing with, you can easily make a mistake you'll regret later.

Other sections in this sometimes comical, sometimes alarming, but always absorbing 16-chapter compendium take up such compelling topics as "Certainty and the Seduction of Chance," "Why a Happy Brain Discounts the Future," "The Magnetism of Autopilot," "Revving Your Engine in Idle," "Writing Promises on an Etch-a-Sketch [!]," "Want, Get, Regret, Repeat," "The Hidden Power of Stuff," "Your Mind in Rewrites," and "Shake Your Meaning Maker."

The book concludes with two appendixes. The first encompasses a valuable annotated bibliography of especially recommended resources for anyone wishing to delve further into the subject. And the second "sneaks in" research studies that DiSalvo couldn't quite find a place for elsewhere—but were simply too interesting to omit.

For me, this final section is probably most telling in how it suggests the author's strong feelings about not having readers "miss out" on anything that might really appeal to them. In fact, throughout the book there's a sense that DiSalvo is motivated to "gift" his readers as much as possible with the fruits of his so-conscientious labor. And for such diligent concern I could hardly be more grateful.

That said, however, I'd like to complete this review by changing gears and noting that as a former English professor (later morphed into a practicing psychologist who still loves to write), I've remained acutely aware of literary style. And it's here that I've felt even more indebted to DiSalvo. For I found his style of presentation—particularly in a book of this scientific nature—to be extraordinarily warmhearted and welcoming. Moreover, it could hardly be more luminous. With admirable brevity and wit, DiSalvo regularly highlights his key points and manages to keep things moving at just the right clip. His page-turning prose never descends into the leaden, opaque, or obscure. Although some of his topics may be weighty, and the research he fluently describes complex, he's consistently readable—his writing both compact and precise.

To give an example of DiSalvo's unusually engaging style, here's a generous sampling from a late chapter called "Mind the Gap." As a lead-in to reviewing much of the research discussed earlier, he starts with this engrossing anecdote:


I'm standing near the deli counter at the supermarket. Close to me are five or six other people, and we are all eyeing the same quarry—rotisserie chickens turning on a spit in the monster-sized oven against the far wall. The timer on the oven tells us that there are just over three minutes left before the chickens are ready. More people gather. I inch closer to the counter. The others do the same. I can feel a tension thickening in the atmosphere; my nerves are starting to peak, my heart is beating faster. I stop for a second and ask myself why I feel this way. All of us standing at the counter can see that there are more than enough chickens available for the crowd. Even if there weren't, we are in a grocery store full of food. No one is going to starve in this scenario. . . . None of us will have to fight for our food or risk our lives against other predators to secure our families' sustenance. And yet, the tension persists.

. . . I cannot undo my brain's tendency to amp my energy level and alertness to ensure that I get the food I came for—a tendency that has been neurally hardwired, for good reason, and been shown to be valuable under certain conditions. What I can do is recognize what is happening, identify why the reaction is out of place for the circumstances, and relax.

That simple example illustrates the two things that must happen for us to effectively address the problematic tendencies of a happy brain: elevate awareness and take action. Awareness of why we are doing what we are doing is a crucial step toward action because it initiates a change in thinking—we have to pause to examine what's going on. And this is why science-help is more useful than typical self-help. Gleaning evidence-based clues from cognitive science provides tools to bolster awareness and enable action.


Amusing, yet also informative, personal anecdotes like these are scattered throughout the book. And these visual demonstrations help the reader better assimilate the research literature that follows. Clearly, the author has mastered the art of popularizing his subject without stripping it of its inherent complexity. And such authorial agility is crucial. For many of the studies DiSalvo characterizes are anything but simple, full of details that could easily place excessive demands on the reader were it not for the author's adept "translations" (which effectively remove any academic stiffness or jargon).

Nonetheless, in good conscience, I coudn't recommend that readers attempt to get through this book in a mere sitting or two. For adequately absorbing its contents requires a fair amount of thought and reflection. Obviously, DiSalvo spent a great deal of time researching and constructing this comprehensive overview. It would do his final product an injustice to try to, well, "breeze" through it.

But if the author's work is to some degree challenging, it's appropriately so—given that much of the material DiSalvo takes up is less than intuitive, thereby requiring a certain amount of scrupulous analysis to be fully grasped. If you're to gain as much knowledge as potentially this volume has to offer you, you'll want to read it with attention and focus.

In sum, this isn't a book to peruse when your energy is flagging. Instead, you'll want to embrace it when your mental engine is running at full tilt. For that's precisely when your intellectual curiosity will be most aroused and—because of DiSalvo's lively acumen—also most rewarded.

© 2012 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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