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See Inside April/May/June 2009

MIND Reviews: Why We Make Mistakes

Reviews and recommendations from the April/May/June 2009 issue of Scientific American MIND

PRONE TO GOOF

Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average
by Joseph T. Hallinan. Broadway Books, 2009 ($24.95)

In the early 1980s a group of Mayo Clinic doctors decided to look at old chest x-rays of patients who later developed lung cancer. The radiologists who had initially checked the scans had found them to be normal, but the team reexamining them saw that 90 percent of the tumors had actually been clearly visible.

Should this astronomical error rate surprise us? Not at all, journalist Joseph T. Hallinan says, because it’s only human to make such “looked but didn’t see” mistakes. Moreover, not seeing what is right in front of us is just one of a stunningly large array of shortcomings of the human brain that cause us to err, Hallinan claims. In Why We Make Mistakes, he provides the reader with an intriguing assortment of these failings.

The book is chock-full of fascinating examples, ranging from entertaining to horrifying to utterly bizarre (a South Wales group of vigilantes, for example, vandalized a doctor’s office after confusing the words “pediatrician” and “pedophile”). We learn that humans tend to process information in specific contexts. That explains why, for hours, no one noticed the body of a Delaware woman who committed suicide by hanging herself on a tree at the end of October in 2005—people in the town thought it was a Halloween decoration.

But it’s not just the limitations of our brains that cause us to make mistakes; equally at fault are our surroundings, which are often at odds with the way the human mind works, Hallinan says. Cars, for example, are rapidly turning into living rooms and offices, featuring access to phone, e-mail and text messaging, even though many studies have shown that humans are not capable of doing several things at once. Even worse, Hallinan warns, many “safety” devices work “by interrupting the driver at the worst possible time.” And yet car crashes usually get blamed on the driver, not the car. So, according to Hallinan, it’s not difficult to figure out why we often don’t learn from our mistakes and keep repeating them: “We haven’t understood their root causes.”

Why We Make Mistakes is an eye-opening account of our brain’s imperfections and a frightening report of how little we do as a society to keep these shortcomings from becoming dangerous. It will make you think twice about answering your cell phone next time it rings while you are on the road. 

THE HARD PROBLEM

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of
Consciousness by Alva Noë. Hill and Wang, 2009 ($25)

Your brain is a three-pound hunk of grayish jelly. Your mind hosts a stream of thoughts and sensations. Despite recent advances in neuroscience, we don’t know how to get from one to the other: we still can’t explain the mind in terms of the brain. Some believe that if we keep studying the brain with the tools we have, we will eventually work up to the conscious mind. Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, is not so optimistic. In Out of Our Heads, his fi rst book for a popular audience, he argues that we have been looking for consciousness in the wrong place.

“Consciousness does not happen in the brain,” Noë claims. But his position is not as extreme as it sounds. The point is not that neural states are irrelevant to our experience but that if we are ever to understand the nature of conscious awareness we will have to consider more than just our “wet, sticky, meat-slab brains.” The sense of consciousness,
according to Noë, is the ongoing product of a wide-ranging interaction between the body of a living creature and the world it inhabits. The brain is only part of this story.

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