FINDING INSPIRATION

Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us
by Daniel H. Pink.
Riverhead Books, 2009 ($26.95)

What pushes employees to do their best work? Many businesses operate under the belief that the key to motivating workers is giving them tangible rewards, such as a cash bonus or a corner office. In the book Drive, business writer Daniel H. Pink argues persuasively that these companies have it all wrong. He cites a body of behavioral science research that suggests that optimal performance comes when people find intrinsic meaning in their work.

Pink points to studies that show creating incentives can be counterproductive. This idea was first hinted at in the 1960s, when psychologist Sam Glucksberg, now at Princeton University, experimented with the “candle problem,” a test in which participants are given a candle, matches and a box of tacks and asked to fix the candle to a wall (the solution lies in using the box as a platform). Volunteers who were offered cash to solve the problem fast actually took longer to finish because, as Glucksberg concluded, focusing on the reward interfered with the volunteers’ ability to concentrate on completing the task at hand. In a more recent study, researchers at Harvard Business School asked a panel of artists and curators to rate pieces of artwork for creativity and technical skill without knowing whether or not the works were commissioned. The panel ended up ranking commissioned pieces lower in creativity than noncommissioned pieces, even though they found no difference in technical skill.

Although incentives seem to hamper performance, Pink acknowledges that not all are bad. Dangling carrots may be useful in getting people to plow through boring, routine work. But in the fast-changing 21st-century economy, the success of individuals and organizations increasingly depends on being nimble and innovative, so there is more and more need for people to find intrinsic value in their work. Pink identifies three elements underlying such intrinsic motivation: autonomy, the ability to choose what and how tasks are completed; mastery, the process of becoming adept at an activity; and purpose, the desire to improve the world.

Drive highlights businesses that promote these values. Google lets its engineers work on any project they choose for 20 percent of their time—a policy that has yielded popular products, including Google News. Toms Shoes in California matches every sale with a charitable donation of a pair of shoes to a child in the developing world. Pink also cites educational institutions such as Montessori schools that let kids follow their natural curiosity in self-directed activities. Moving beyond the world of work, he advocates designing your own exercise program rather than following a gym's cookie-cutter one to motivate you to break a sweat.

A limitation of Drive's argument is that many people may be too busy making ends meet to seek out work or other activities that hold intrinsic interest. Still, Pink makes a convincing case that organizations ignore intrinsic motivation at their peril.—Kenneth Silber

LATE BLOOM

The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind
by Barbara Strauch.
Viking, 2010 ($26.95)

Brains, like certain French cheeses, get better with age. That's the message of The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain, which takes a detailed look at an avalanche of new research showing that human brains hit their prime when their owners are between their early 40s and late 60s—much later than previously thought.

In accessible and entertaining prose, journalist Barbara Strauch explains how and why our brain's performance—as opposed to that of the rest of our body—actually improves as we move through middle age. Sure, we may get a little more forgetful, say when it comes to remembering names or where we left our keys, but the middle-aged brain is unsurpassed in handling the important stuff, Strauch says. A recent study of 118 pilots aged 40 to 69 showed, for example, that the older participants outperformed their younger colleagues when avoiding traffic collisions using simulators. One reason Strauch gives is that we begin to use a larger portion of our brain as we age.

[break]

For example, studies in which volunteers learned pairs of words revealed that younger adults used only their right frontal lobes when recalling the twosome while older adults used both the left and right side. This is “much like using two arms instead of one to pick up a heavy chair,” Strauch says. The study's results fly in the face of the long-held view that as time goes on people use a smaller portion of their brain. But that's not all. Researchers have also found that the amount of myelin, the fatty substance that insulates nerve fibers, continues to increase well into middle age, boosting brain cells’ processing capacity.

Strauch's book paints a radically new picture of the brain that goes far beyond making those entering middle age feel better. Instead the newly gained insights into the adult brain should cause us to rethink how we structure our lives, Strauch says. Right now we “tell people to get out of the way at sixty-two—too old to teach, too old to be a doctor, too old to be a lawyer,” even though that's when the brain's performance reaches its peak. So, rather than treating the middle-aged brain as “diminished, declining, and depressed,” we should embrace it for what it actually is: “ripe, ready, and whole.”—Nicole Branan

FAULTY SIGHT

Blindspots: The Many Ways We Cannot See
by Bruno Breitmeyer.                                                                                                                     Oxford University Press, 2010 ($39.95)

Do you think what you see is always what you’re looking at? Then think again, says neuroscientist Bruno Breitmeyer. In his book Blindspots, Breitmeyer shows us that there can be large differences between the information that enters our eyes and the pictures that our mind constructs from it.

Blindspots surveys findings from various research fields that deal with vision and visual perception. Interspersed with these facts are fascinating experiments and tricks that illustrate the phenomena described—and that readers can try themselves. The book's essay style, however, makes it overall a rather dry read.

Breitmeyer spends a good deal of the book discussing in depth the biological underpinnings of how our eyes work and what happens in various diseases and injuries that impair eyesight. Readers learn, for example, that severing specific nerve fibers once left a patient unable to recognize written words. This person's brain could still take in the shapes of letters but could no longer communicate the information to the brain regions responsible for word recognition, making the patient “word-blind.”

It's not just illness or injury, however, that can harm our visual perception; experience plays an important part as well, Breitmeyer explains. Studies have shown, for example, that if chimpanzees are not allowed to actively explore their environment when growing up they have a hard time discriminating between similar geometric shapes, such as a triangle oriented upright and one that is upside down. The same will likely happen to neglected infants, Breitmeyer argues, making it difficult for them to distinguish between similar-looking letters, such as t and f.

Our cultural inheritance shapes the way we see, too, Breitmeyer explains. For example, research has shown that those who live in a city or town are particularly well attuned to horizontally and vertically oriented lines because that is mainly what they see in the form of buildings, streets, and so on. That is not the case for those who spend most of their time in an environment dominated by oblique shapes, such as tepee dwellings. And, as everyone knows, strong emotions can make us nearly blind to certain facts. Breitmeyer concludes that “to see in the fullest sense of the word, it is not enough to open your eyes; you also must come with an open mind.”—Nicole Branan