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December 7, 2004

"Mind Hacks": Mess with Your Brain in all the Right Ways

Sebastopol, CA--Quick, how much of your brain do you use? Ten percent, right? Wrong! Although conventional wisdom may not give it proper credit, our brains use every neuron they have to reconcile a prodigious amount of information. In fact, our ever-considerate brains do so much without nagging that we often take their efforts for granted.

In Mind Hacks (O'Reilly, US $24.95) authors Tom Stafford and Matt Webb delve into cognitive neuroscience in an attempt to give the brain its due. "People have always tried to peek inside the brain, and science books about the mind going awry have always been popular," note Stafford and Webb. "Previously, these have taken people with damaged brains as a starting point, seeing which areas are broken and what the effects are, or they've done experiments on people using flashing lights and accurate timing and so on, but without actually looking at the brain."

That's the past, say Stafford and Webb. And coming up in the future are some pretty wild ideas: computer games controlled by whether you feel calm or not, and more seriously, the same technology being used so that people can control computer cursors with controlled brain activity, which would be a boon to people who can't use current-day computers.

But what lies in the middle, between the experiments of the past and the visions of the future? Neuroscience, according to Stafford and Webb, is going to get really big over the next decade. Cognitive neuroscience is one of the ways we have to understand the workings of our minds. It's the study of the brain biology behind our mental functions: a collection of methods--like brain scanning and computational modeling--combined with a way of looking at psychological phenomena and discovering where, why, and how the brain makes them happen.

"How much of our 'self'--what we think of as the mind--depends on the physical stuff of the brain? How changeable is that?" Stafford and Webb ask. "Can we learn to count faster, to read emotions better, or pay attention better? We can get an insight into our own brains just by looking at research that's been coming to light in the past few years."

Want to know more? Mind Hacks is a collection of probes into the moment-by-moment workings of the brain. Using cognitive neuroscience, these experiments, tricks, and tips related to vision, motor skills, attention, cognition, subliminal perception, and more throw light on how the human brain works. Each "hack" examines specific operations of the brain. By seeing how the brain responds, we pick up clues about the architecture and design of the brain, learning a little bit more about how the brain is put together.

In Mind Hacks, the authors don't treat the brain as an abstract idea: "We start from an experiment that you can do at home, or one that's particularly illuminating that's been done in the lab, and then we draw out how it works and what else we can learn from it." For example, "Go to a mirror, and stare into it from about 6 inches away. Now look from eye to eye. Do you see your pupils in motion? They must be moving, but you can't see it happening. Watch someone else do it and you'll see their pupils move quite a lot, so how did you miss it? Well, it's because your vision cuts out while your eyes are in motion, and there's more about that at the beginning of Chapter 2."

Or maybe you want to know why people get so specific about how they take their coffee. "It's because caffeine is a drug, and it trains you into following a ritual," Stafford and Webb tell us. "We associate the coffee-making ritual with the coffee high in the same way Pavlov's dogs associated a ringing bell with food, and started salivating." Other "hacks" in the book include:

  • See Movement When All is Still
  • Feel the Presence and Loss of Attention
  • Detect Sounds on the Margins of Certainty
  • Mold Your Body Schema
  • Test Your Handedness
  • See a Person in Moving Lights
  • Make Events Understandable as Cause-and-Effect
  • Boost Memory by Using Context
  • Understand Detail and the Limits of Attention
  • Mind Hacks is not just fun and games--it has a serious side, too. The authors cite web sites, books, and academic papers so readers can probe other interesting resources. "Some of the hacks in this collection document the neat tricks the brain has used to get the job done, " note Webb and Stafford. "Other hacks point to quirks of our own minds that we can exploit in unexpected ways."

    Steven Johnson, author of Mind Wide Open, writes in his foreword to the book, "These hacks amaze because they reveal the brain's hidden logic; they shed light on the cheats and shortcuts and latent assumptions our brains make about the world." If you want to know more about what's going on in your head, then Mind Hacks is the key--let yourself play with the interface between you and the world. As Steven Johnson says, "May it mess with your head in all the right ways."

    Additional Resources:

    Mind Hacks
    Tom Stafford and Matt Webb
    ISBN: 0-596-00779-5, 363 pages, $24.95 US, $36.95 CA
    order@oreilly.com
    1-800-998-9938; 1-707-827-7000

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