Early in Idiot Brain, author Dean Burnett addresses a common misconception about memory. People tend to assume human memory works along the same lines as a computer’s memory: information goes in, is stored, and is retrieved at a later date when you need it. Sure, there might be trouble retrieving at times: you only have perfect recall ability if you’re Sherlock or you take narcotics like Bradley Cooper in Limitless, but all the data is in there somewhere, right?
Unfortunately for the pharmaceutical industry, it’s not that simple. Your brain stores information, but it plays by its own rules. For example, it might decide, for no obvious reason, that one bit of information is more important than another and give it more weight. It might file things in a completely haphazard manner, like when you’re trying to remember which episode of Sherlock had that cool fireside deduction monologue and it’s accidentally filed under erotica. It might simply decide it doesn’t like the information you stored and change it to suit itself, like how after a few weeks have passed and you start to remember Limitless as being a good movie. In the biggest jerk move of all, your brain will, at random moments, retrieve the most personal and embarrassing moments that you’d rather forget, like the time your friends asked you to leave their home because of your inappropriate behavior while watching Sherlock.
The point is, if a computer did all this we would throw it out a window in short order. Probably. As a Mac user, I’m not sure we wouldn’t just shell out the cash for the next upgrade, but you get what I’m saying. The brain is capable of tremendous feats, but it’s flawed.
Memory is just one of the ways our brain can let us down. In a chapter called “Think you’re clever, do you?” Burnett describes how intelligent people are often less confident in their ideas than those who are more IQ-challenged, because intelligent people are aware that they don’t know everything. This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, after David Dunning and Justin Kruger, researchers who studied this phenomenon. Dunning and Kruger administered tests to their study subjects and also asked them to rate how well they thought they did. The research revealed a remarkable pattern where those who did poorly on the test almost always assumed they had done much better, while those who had done well had underestimated their performance. So basically if you aren’t very smart, you aren’t able to recognize that you aren’t very smart. Your brain protects you from having to come to grips with the fact that you’re an idiot, which is sort of sweet but isn’t really doing any of us any favors. Incidentally, the title of the chapter comes from the author’s experience of telling someone he was trained as a neuroscientist and getting the response, “Oh, think you’re clever do you?” Not to blow it out of proportion, but this is a pretty sad commentary on the anti-intellectualism that is rampant in society today. If I met a neuroscientist at a party, I’d plant myself there and ply him or her with a million brain questions, unless he tried to tell me that someone like Sherlock couldn’t really exist, in which case I’m outta there.
Burnett also comments on what about our brain makes us act so shitty to each other sometimes. Things like the Nuremberg trials and the Milgram experiment demonstrate that humans are often willing to follow horrific orders if they are coming from a seemingly legitimate source. We also form groups and are quick to demonize anyone not part of “our” tribe. From fans of rival sports teams getting into brawls to outright racism, this idea of “us” and “them” seems like a bad idea, yet we keep doing it. Why?
For one thing, the brain has a strong ego-centric bias. It wants us to look good, which can often make it harder to empathize with others. An area in our brain recognizes and can correct this bias, but that area can be manipulated or disrupted, which puts us back at square one. Studies have shown that the more well-off someone is, the more difficult it is to appreciate the problems facing someone who is worse off.
Another reason we act like jerks to each other is because of a cognitive bias called the “just world” hypothesis. It means our brains assume that the world is a just and fair place, so if someone is struggling, is poor, is oppressed, they must deserve it. In this world, good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished. To accept that the world is much more random, that actions are meaningless, and that maybe the good fortune we enjoy is to some extent based on luck, is to live in a much scarier universe.
Burnett’s writing is light-hearted and funny (he dabbles in stand-up comedy) and you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to appreciate it. My only complaint is there were times when I wanted him to dig deeper into some of the topics. I really would have liked to learn more about the evolutionary advantages of our brains’ behavior. For example, an “us” vs. “them” mentality was probably critical during the early days of humans, when there were lots of things out there trying to kill you. He doesn’t really address these questions, although perhaps that’s a book for an evolutionary biologist and not a neuroscientist. So you’re not that clever, are ya Burnett?