The Broken Brain Books

There is a short paragraph in Steven Johnson’s excellent Mind Wide Open that, for me, marks a turning point in both popular science writing about the brain, and pop psychology. Here is the bit that was an Aha! moment for me:

…while it is interesting to find out [the] exact addresses [of brain functions], that information is ultimately unsatisfying. Call it the “neuromap fallacy.” If neuroscience turns out to be mostly good at telling us the location of the “food craving center” or the “jealousy” center,” then it will be of limited relevance to ordinary people seeking a new kind of self-awareness — because learning where jealousy lives in your head doesn’t make you understand the emotion any more clearly. Those neuromaps will be of great interest to scientists of course, and doctors. But to the layperson, they will be little more than trivia.

Now why does this statement represent a watershed moment in popular writing about our brains and psychology?

Here’s why. I suspect even scientists and doctors realize that you can only go nuts about fMRIs and anterior stupidus ganglia for so long, but oddly enough, this represents the first time, I believe, that this fairly obvious point has been made in a popular book. Neuroanatomy is to a truly fundamental brain science what high-school geography is to fundamental physics. I had developed a brief addiction to “neuromap fallacy” books in the mid-nineties, but I’d always been left unsatisfied and feeling like that literature was missing the point. Johnson belled the cat (the book itself is a tongue-in-cheek chronicle of Johnson’s experiences subjecting himself to the latest in brain testing — very entertaining).

Shortly afterwards, I noticed a trend. A steady stream of books that elevated public discourse about the brain above the unsatisfying level of the “neuromap fallacy.” I call this stream of books the “Broken Brain” books.

The Broken Brain Books

The broken brain books all share an axiom, which has its roots in the Nobel-prize winning work on behavioral economics by Daniel Kahneman and his collaborators. I’d state the axiom informally like so:

The brain works in weirdly flawed ways, but in consistently weirdly flawed ways. The key to taking control of your life is recognizing, compensating for, and taking advantage of these weird flaws.

I haven’t read any of the original work of Kahneman and company, but the work gets applied in Broken Brain books by means of a sort of ‘bias spotting’ game, where the objective is to discover instances of a laundry list of standard biases exhibited by humans. These include things like hindsight bias, anchoring, confirmation, survivorship and various others. But the point is not to get caught up in yet another mapping game, where you label the geography of behavior with bias labels (hindsightus biasus?). What sets the broken-brain books apart is that the labeling is actually a useful starting point for productive change. But before I comment further, here are four excellent examples of broken brain books (buy some).

  • Scholar-Warrior (okay, Professor-Investor) Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets is a fascinating (if somewhat self-important) and discursive walk through the various sorts of flawed reasoning that drive behavior in the financial world. Taleb makes two sophisticated points — that mathematics is a tool for thinking more than a tool for computation, and that many financial professionals with scary levels of skill with things like regressions and semi-martingales are often conceptually very shaky and very susceptible to ‘broken brain’ errors at foundational levels. Taleb has followed up with a deeper examination of one particular flaw, our poor ability at processing rare events, in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable which I haven’t yet read, but which looks pretty interesting.
  • Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, tackles a much broader range of everyday behavior in Stumbling on Happiness. The best broad book of the lot.
  • The one that made me cringe the most is definitely Cornell food science researcher Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, which gently points out a wide range of extraordinarily stupid eating behavior, much of which I have been guilty of. The book does more to elevate the discussion of why America (and increasingly, the whole world) is obese than all those shelves full of diet books.
  • And finally, the one that scared me the most, Jerome Groopman’s pensive, thoughtful and honest appraisal of how doctors really learn and apply clinical diagnosis skills (pretty badly, it turns out): How Doctors Think

Now, I am sure there are already more out there, and more on the way. No good bandwagon goes unnoticed. There are already some bad ones out there (V. Raghunathan’s well-intentioned, but fatally-flawed Games Indians Play ; Why We Are the Way We Are is one — superficially coherent, but fundamentally wrong-headed). Given the connections to evolutionary psychology, I am pretty sure some godawful speculative books emphasizing that ultimately uninteresting aspect will be written. But let’s try and understand why the emergence of this class of popular literature is a very good sign.

[Added, 2/1/07 — reader tubelite notes that Eliezer Yudkowsky of the Overcoming Bias team blog writes extensively on this topic — the few posts I’ve read are pretty good]

Why the Broken Brain Books Are Good For You

Broken Brain books are good news for two reasons. First, they’ve elevated the genre of pop-psychology. Second, they’ve elevated the complementary genre of self-improvement. Here’s how.

Back before fMRI took us on that neuromapping detour, the pop-psychology that used to dominate was the kind represented very well by the still-entertaining Games People Play, and its spin-offs like I’m OK–You’re OK, a phrase which became cliched enough to merit parodies like I’m OK — You’re Not So Hot. Like many, I had fun with these books, but their conceptual arbitrariness (they were based on something called transactional analysis — a Neo-Freudian approach that turned id, ego and superego into the more comprehensible and less sex-obsessed, but no less arbitrary, child, adult and parent) limited their trustworthiness. Behaviorist literature left most of us cold, and the ill-defined cognitive psychology movement was much too obsessed with Chomsky and computational models of the mind to be useful for things like fixing relationships or being less angry.

So what have the broken brain books done to pop-psychology? They’ve given the genre a better alternative than either the neuro-mapping frame of discourse or the parent-adult-child sort of arbitrary frame. We have instead, a framing that is based on the brain, without being mired in Latin geography or Freudian arbitrariness.

Turning to the second front, until the broken brain books came along, philosophers ruled the more normative self-improvement world. You had, on the one hand, the Machiavellian tragedians, like Robert Greene (The 48 Laws of Power), whose primary axiom is the unchanging moral corruption of humans. On the other, you had the idealists, hawking advice loosely derived from the axiom that human nature is perfect and is meant to grow towards a realization of its potential (Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is the prototype here, though Zen seems to work as well as Mormonism to justify the axiom). The problem: both basic stances are derived from philosophy and religion rather than any empirical understanding of our brains. Both were blank-slate stances and had all the associated problems.

The positive impact: self-improvement has been rescued from its wobbly ideological frames, and brought down to a more mundane and useful level. I should note though, that the Broken Brain books to a certain extent validate the tragic stance towards human nature, though the “flaws” in question are merely quirky evolutionary adaptations rather than deep-seated evil and corruptibility. Robert Greene’s stuff, for instance, holds up pretty well when reframed in broken-brain terms.

Things aren’t perfect of course, and I suppose I could write an equally long blog about the problems and flaws in the broken brain movement, but let’s celebrate for once, a change for the better in popular writing, which generally tends to get dumber instead of smarter every year.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Neuromap studies are good for one reason: deconstructing the popular image of an atomic personality or “soul”. It doesn’t matter where specifically the particular functionality resides: the fact that it can be localized, and therefore – in theory – subject to damage and “cure” just like other organs like livers and kidneys certainly gives a useful perspective. Not to you, of course, but to the people who get their science news from the newspaper.

    Neuromap studies are also likely to lead to the end of the human race as we know it. Once you figure out the pleasure centers and a nice non-invasive method of stimulating them with 2 AA cells, without the nasty aftereffects of doing it with chemicals, or a long period of ascetic apprenticeship where your master hits you on the head as a punchline to his latest koan, well…

    …instead of the circuitous paths which we are forced to run to stimulate them – family, money, career, popularity, writing blogs about the purpose of meaning and so forth – a simple circuit consisting of 2 AA cells outside and a few cells inside.

    I’m a big fan of the Broken Brain line myself. Overcoming Bias is one blog which I struggle to keep up with. Eliezer Yudkowsky is particularly prolific on this topic:

    “…if you can understand your mind as a mapping-engine with flaws in it – then you can apply a reflective correction. The brain is a flawed lens through which to see reality. This is true of both mouse brains and human brains. But a human brain is a flawed lens that can understand its own flaws – its systematic errors, its biases – and apply second-order corrections to them. This, in practice, makes the flawed lens far more powerful. Not perfect, but far more powerful.”

  2. Curious. I checked out the overcoming bias site when it was first pointed out to me, but rather quickly (and it appears, mistakenly) concluded that it was about primarily about things like oppression and racial stereotypes and the notion of bias in the political sense of the word. Seems like a case of ‘initial condition’ bias followed by confirmation bias on my part :)

    On another note, yesterday I sat through an interesting presentation by a team from Harris Interactive, a major online market research firm. They mentioned a of bias which crops up in survey contexts — acquiescence bias I think they called it. A tendency to say more positive things and ‘yes’ answers to interviewers in face to face contexts as opposed to online. Dunno whether this belongs in this ‘broken brain’ stamp collection or not.

    I’ve pondered the aspect of neuromapping you mention — are we over-thinking stuff that is “really” simple? I don’t think so. “Jealousy” might be both something that can be triggered by cleverly placed electrodes AND the complex thing Shakespeare talks about. The simple proximal physical cause and complex cognitive pattern I suspect, are kinda yin-yang aspects of the same thing. That’s worth another blog post worth of analysis which I won’t attempt here, but I think we ought to stay away from the behaviorist trap: just because a phenomenon is very simple in terms of its lead indicator (fMRI signature) and its stimulus-response structure, doesn’t mean it is cognitively simple. But I admit I haven’t thought this through yet.