The Knowledge Illusion, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.


Try this out on a friend. Ask them these questions:

  1. On a scale of 1 to 7, rate how well you understand how a zip works.
  2. How does a zip work? Describe in as much detail as you can all  the steps in a zip’s operation.
  3. Now, on the same 1 to 7 scale, rate your knowledge of how a zip works again.

They will almost certainly give a lower estimate the second time, becuase the task has revealed to them how little they actually understand about a zip. This is called the Illusion of Explanatory Depth. The truly terrifying thing is that we are all subject to this illusion, about all of our knowledge. None of us actually know a fraction of the stuff that we think we know.

The reason for this is that we confuse other people’s knowledge with our own. Because other people that we trust understand stuff, we think that we understand that stuff ourselves. We are all prey to this confusion, from A-level students (and teachers), to scientists, politicians, and “experts” of all kinds.

Sloman and Fernback argue that this is because our minds are equipped and optimised for thinking in groups, rather than individually.

The ideas in this book are related to the ideas of Tversky and Kahneman, which are outlined in Thinking Fast and Slow. Thinking Fast and Slow is a longer and more scientifically dense book, but The Knowledge Illusion is also a really fun read, and much shorter.

The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond.

coverwuyPre-industrial societies are very different from ours. Some of them kill grandparents when they get to a certain age. Individuals are often fluent in ten or more languages. They feast when food is plentiful, but are happy to go without for several days if there is nothing to eat.

Until a few thousand years ago, all humans lived in this way. It is what we evolved to do. This book is a fascinating account of Jared Diamond’s lifetime of observation of pre-industrial people from around the world. It is long, but packed with packed with intriguing stories from tribal societies.

Not surprisingly, Jared Diamond thinks that we have a lot to learn from these people.

Connectome, by Sebastian Seung.

Read. This. Book.connectomecover
This one is in my top three psychology books for A level students to read this year. It is exciting because it sketches out some future directions that cognitive neuroscience is going to take in the coming years and decades.
When Galileo pointed his telescope at the night sky, he saw for the first time the machinery of planetary motion. This laid the foundations for our modern understanding of astronomy. The same is happening today in brain science. The ongoing improvement in brain scanning is driving new understanding of how the brain actually works. This book is a guide to the road ahead.
Not only that, but the first few chapters are a brilliant primer on the basics of neuroscience and biopsychology, and will be great revision for this part of the exam.
A really interesting read, and very accessible.
“A connectome is the totality of connections between the neurons in a nervous system.”
“In the nineteenth century, the American psychologist William James wrote eloquently of the stream of consciousness, the continuous flow of thoughts through the mind. But James failed to note that every stream has a bed. Without this groove in the earth, the water would not know in which direction to flow. Since the connectome defines the pathways along which neural activity can flow, we might regard it as the streambed of consciousness.
The metaphor is a powerful one. Over a long period of time, in the same way that the water of the stream slowly shapes the bed, neural activity changes the connectome. The two notions of the self – as both the fast-moving, ever-changing stream and the more stable but slowly transforming streambed –  are thus inextricably linked. This book is about the self as the streambed, the self in the connectome – the self that has been neglected for too long.”

The Organised Mind, by Daniel Levitin.

Multi tasking is not actual multi tasking. It is switching attention from one task to another very quickly. Our brains are bad at doing this, and the more we do it the less well we perform. It is better to concentrate on one thing at a time. This book explains why, and gives practical strategies based on sound scientific psychology that will help you to concentrate better and to remember more.815VsM8i-NL

It explains why we find decisions harder if there are too many choices, and how to tackle that problem. It gives practical advice on how not to forget things, how not to run out of time, and how to use logic to make tough decisions, and not to be swayed by irrational emotions.

It also puts forward some ideas for education. What is the point of learning stuff when we can just google everything? The book explores what we should be learning, when everything is just a click away.

Really readable and packed with excellent (and commendably scientific) background psychology.

Into the Silent Land, by Paul Broks.


The “Silent Land” in question is the brain. Paul Broks is a neuropsychologist, who spends his days talking to and helping people with brains damaged by stroke, injury, or other trauma. They are altered – the same person, but permanently changed. Broks helps these people and their families come to terms with the injuries, and at the same time speculates on how the Silent Land can give rise to our humanity.
The book is a series of case studies: frank and humane discussions with brain damaged people, very readable, and not at all technical. By looking at how focussed damage to particular brain areas gives rise to specific cognitive deficits, Broks addresses the questions of localisation of function in the brain, and asks the larger question: how does this dark and tangled web of synapses and neurons in our skull conjure up a person?

The Persuaders, by James Garvey.

persuadersJames Garvey decided to write this book after attending a lecture by a high-flying Oxford theologian. In the Q & A, he raised his hand and posed a killer objection to one of the points that the speaker had made. His neighbour leaned over to him and whispered “you’ve got him!”

Garvey had won plainly won the argument. Unfortunately, it made no difference whatsoever. The speaker didn’t change his mind. He seemed to consider the question, and then just carried on, ignoring the point that had been made.

The point is that people are not really swayed by rational arguments – even ones that are obviously true. Rather people make up their minds on the basis of emotional factors, and then use rational argument to justify their already fixed ideas.

This sad psychological fact has long been know to advertisers and politicians, who use industrial strength emotional and cognitive manipulation to implant in our minds the opinions they wish us to have. No-one is immune from this manipulation. The only real defence is knowledge, so at least we can be aware of how we are being controlled and directed for the benefit of others.

In The Persuaders, James Garvey takes us on a tour of what he has discovered about the persuasion industry. He’s a philosopher, but there’s plenty of scientific psychology in the book. Required reading for any psychologist interested in democracy and free will.

More Things in Heaven and Earth, by Stephen Jay Gould.

This article is a really nice short introduction to the work of one of the main critics of evolutionary psychology, Stephen Jay Gould. He was a biologist, disagreed with the “evolutionary agenda”, which seeks to explain most or all human behaviour in evolutionary terms. He regarded the extreme evolutionary position as overly deterministic. He did not dismiss evolutionary psychology, but instead regarded it as a partial explanation, along with environmental and cultural factors.

This article contains a nice introduction to Gould’s concept of the spandrel, which is something that you really need to know about if you are interested in philosophy or the psychology of religion.spandrel

This other articles in this book are less readable and less informative, but might be worth a look if you are interested.

“The task of evolutionary psychology… turns into a speculative search for reasons why a behaviour that may harm us now must once have originated for adaptive purposes.”

More Things in Heaven and Earth, in Alas, Poor Darwin ed Hilary Rose and Steven Rose.