Brainy Book Reviews: A Fine Line to Walk

Along with some adventure books, I’ve also been reading some popular non-fiction as well and all three of my most recent reads have a tall order in common:  tell a convincing, scientifically backed story that is readable for normal people – like me.  They each succeed in varying degrees.

In Brain Rules:  12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, John Medina, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, tackles the big task of making neuroscience understandable for a wide audience.  In his book he attempts to take current science and apply it to normal life in ways that are actually implementable in daily life.  For example, the brain is constantly undergoing a battle between wanting to sleep and wanting to be awake.  He explains that there is a point (and many of us cross this point frequently) that fighting the desire to sleep is counterproductive and that whether individually or from a business perspective, it may in fact be better to take a short nap rather than fight the chemicals in your brain because your brain simply isn’t as good when the sleepy chemicals are winning.

While he does explain how the brain works, and he does so with fine analogies and descriptions, he often gets too simple and too basic.  He is a scientist that tries to toe the line of being too technical while avoiding the trap of being too dumbed-down.  Generally, he succeeds, but at times he crosses the line.

Charles Duhigg on the other hand is a journalist by trade, but he attempts to toe the same line in telling the story of how habits work in his bestseller The Power of Habit:  Why we do what we do in Life and Business.  His book is very engaging and entertaining as he tells us story after story of businesses like Starbucks and Proctor and Gamble as well as individuals ranging from Michael Phelps to Rosa Parks.  It is a fun and quick read that breaks down habits into a basic framework of cue, routine, and reward.  He explains through stories how this works, and even throws in some brain science to give the story credibility.

Where Duhigg falls a little short is in the theoretical substance.  While being fun and easy to read, and seemingly convincing as I made my way through the book, by the end, I found myself trying to grasp onto the underlying theory he was basing his claims on and ended up finding myself left without solid ground.  The theory was weak.  Unlike Medina, Duhigg is not a scientist but a writer by trade and I can’t help but think this has something to do with the fundamental structure of his book and why it seemingly falls a bit short of being fully convincing.

Thankfully, Daniel Kahneman comes along and nails it in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman is a scientist – a psychologist with heavy training in statistics (therefore, some may debate whether he’s therefore a scientist or not).  He also is accomplished in behavioral finance having won a Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.  He first describes a bit about the brain and how it works with a quick response system, quick to judge and make decisions.  He then describes the harder to use, more effort requiring system of slower thinking.  Think 2 x 5 =? versus 17 X 24 =? to compare System 1 versus System 2.  He then goes on to show how these systems work together and often lead to many errors of judgment.  He shows how economic theory, based on rationality, isn’t actually always rational.  He shows how we keep mental accounts for our things, how we hate losses more than we appreciate gains, and how we’re willing to take big risks when the odds are really against us but not willing to take risks with good odds if certainty is possible (think insurance business).

Where Kahneman succeeds most is his ability to take an academic subject with theoretical grounding and make it very readable for normal people.  Granted, the book did take me awhile to read, though after every chapter I found myself thinking, “Wow, this is really insightful and interesting stuff”. I think it took so long because I knew that heading into each chapter, I needed to be alert and focused in order to get the most out of the book, so I didn’t just whiz through it. Also, the book was pleasantly interactive in the sense that many of the questions and experiments described throughout were actually presented to the reader to test with themselves as subject. It was engaging, entertaining, and powerful.

I recommend all three books.  They each made me think about my life and how I view the world a little differently.  They were all engaging and enjoyable to read, and they each fit pretty well with my worldview – that’s probably why I like them so much.  While they made me think, they don’t go against how I generally see things.  There is so much out there to read and after watching a few nights of network TV recently, I am so glad to be reading some nerdy, popular brain books instead.

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