The 5 Best Books About How Our Minds Work

Here is my selection of the 5 best books about the way our minds work. I am interested in improving my effectiveness, and so I did a LOT of reading on the way our brains work. It was fascinating to discover just how our minds have evolved and how this has massive implications for the way you respond to everyday situations. I hope you like them. 1

1.The Happiness Hypothesis

I discussed the way that our brains have evolved in a previous blog. The curious idea that our minds have three layers is a striking feature of our anatomy. To recap, our brains contain:

  • A reptilian brain which governs our essential functions and responses.
  • A limbic brain which deals with more complex functions, including emotions.
  • A neocortex that deals with our higher critical and thinking functions.

Johnathan Haidt has an excellent metaphor for the implications of this evolutionary sequence in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He calls it the “elephant and the rider.” Psychologists agree that we at best are only as much as 15% aware of our motivations and behaviours.

This because our brains evolved by adding layers. It means the “older” brain is not evolved to respond to messages from our “newer” brain but is finely tuned to react to messages heading out of the older brain. Raw emotions pass upwards, but our thought processes don’t move downward. The elephant is our limbic self, full of emotion and constantly reacting to the world around us. Our rational self, operating in the neocortex attaches meaning to these impulses.

We might think we are acting rationally, but it might, in fact, be a response to a more straightforward, more basic emotional reaction which our higher brain then explains to us. We assume this explanation is the product of a rational process, when in fact it is a post hoc rationalisation. Johnathan examines the implications of this mechanism in an essay written in 2008 called Why Do People Vote Republican?

If we want to develop a new response to the world we are in, if we want to build new habits or change the way we go about our lives, the implication is clear. We must learn how to train the elephant if the rider is ever going to be able to steer a chosen course.

2.Thinking Fast and Slow

The Nobel Prize-winning economist, Daniel Kahneman’s best selling book Thinking Fast and Slow explores the consequences of our evolutionary history. He developed a theory based on two different ways the mind works and to make things simple he called them System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional, while System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical.

Feeling and thinking are both ways of processing information – it’s just that feeling is much faster. Kahneman argues that our brains have developed a set of cognitive biases or shortcuts as a consequence and that we tend to be mostly unaware of them. He calls these heuristics – but I think of them as short-cuts – ways that our minds respond which cut-out complexity or nuance and which trick us into believing we are acting in full possession of all of the facts and with a rational evaluation of our options.

They include:

  1. Anchoring: Our tendency to be influenced by irrelevant numbers. Shown higher/lower numbers, experimental subjects gave higher/lower responses.
  2. Availability: Our tendency to base judgments about probability on whether we can recall examples (“if you can think of it, it must be important.”)
  3. Substitution: System 1’s tendency to substitute an easy question for a more difficult one.
  4. Optimism: Our tendency to fail to take into account complexities when making judgements, instead of basing our decisions on what we can observe, neglecting information we can’t see and tend to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs.
  5. Framing: Our tendency to be influenced by the context in which choices are presented, such as 90% survival or 10% mortality.
  6. Sunk-costs: Our tendency to ‘throw good money after bad.’

He concludes:

Social scientists in the 1970s broadly accepted two ideas about human nature. First, people are generally rational…Second, emotions…explain most of the occasions on which people depart from rationality. But research has traced [systematic] errors to the… machinery of cognition…rather than corruption…by emotion.

The evolutionary force shaping these thinking systems are as always survival mechanisms. It didn’t pay to wait and evaluate whether that shape moving through the grass was a sabre tooth tiger. Far better to react swiftly and without conscious thought. It is always possible to assess more carefully later when you’ve avoided becoming lunch.

3.The Power of Habit

Charles has written a great book on the subject of habits. Habits are the unconscious mechanisms that were designed to keep us nice and safe while strolling about on the savannah.

Rather than using about our store of brain fuel (glycogen) on evaluating every reaction we make, habits create a pathway in the brain which operates automatically, so conserving our brain fuel for more critical, potentially life-saving decisions. Our habits can have a profound effect on our effectiveness and overall wellbeing. Charles Duhigg does an excellent job out outlining the way that habits influence our lives.

His book, called The Power of Habit describes what psychologists call the habit loop. The habit loop is a neurological pathway that governs any pattern and consists of a cue, a routine and a reward. These pathways can become super fast and can automate substantial amounts of our behaviour, not always in ways that we want.

The problem is that the reward establishes craving, and it is craving which is at the root of the difficulty we experience when attempting to alter bad or unwanted habits. One of the big learning points for me was that if I want to change a habit then what I need to do is break into I the habit loop in one place.

Charles talks about a habit he had of strolling down to the cafeteria and getting a chocolate chip cookie before sitting down to chat with his friends. He wanted to stop eating so many cookies. His options included removing the cue by changing his route to avoid the coffee shop which sells the cookies. Or he could think about the reward: was the cookie the reward or was it chatting with his friends that drew him there, or was it that he just needed a walk.

Eventually, after some experimentation, he discovered that chatting with his friends removed the craving for the cookie.

I think there are two killer takeaways from this book. First, changing a habit you don’t want is easier to do once you understand the habit loop which drives the behaviour. Second, developing good habits can automate good behaviours and reduce the cognitive load in my day.

As a bonus idea, why not use a habit tracking app on your phone to cultivate a new habit? The best one around IMO is called Productive. Charles has a great website which has a lot of useful content. You can visit it by clicking here.

4.The Happiness Advantage

Positive psychology is a relatively new field in the study of human psychology. It is focused not on what is wrong (pathology), but on what works and seeks to emphasise personal growth.

There is an increasing weight of evidence that by emphasising growth over pathology we can attain increased levels of happiness or self-reported well being. In this model of the world, happiness begets success, not the other way round. Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage outlines much of the research background to this field and describes seven principles for achieving increased well being.

These are:

  1. The Happiness Advantage: Happiness drives success, not the other way round.
  2. The Fulcrum and the Lever: The mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality.
  3. The Tetris Effect: Train the brain to scan for possibilities.
  4. Falling-Up: Cultivate a growth mindset and see failure as an opportunity for growth.
  5. The Zorro Circle: Limiting your goals to small, manageable steps will expand your sphere of influence: “don’t write a book, write a page.”
  6. The 20-Second Rule: Turn bad habits into good ones by minimising barriers to change.
  7. Social Investment: Why social support is your greatest asset.

There’s an excellent worksheet on Shawn’s website which you can use to work through exercises that will help you see how these principles can be applied in your situation. You can visit it by clicking here.

The most exciting takeaway from this book is that by changing my mindset and working to increase my openness to opportunity, I am priming myself for increased success and happiness. I have found journaling regularly is a great way to turn this into a habit.

The best journaling app is called Day One. I have set up a snippet on TextExpander on my phone which I can invoke by typing (“.mr”) for my morning routine and (“.ev”) for my evening routine. Here’s what happens when I type “.mr”.

3 Things I’m Grateful For Today

1.

2.

3.

All I do then is just jot down some quick thoughts. By doing this each day I build a habit of looking out for things I’m grateful for which rewires my brain to be on the lookout for the good things in my life.

When I type “.ev” this is what appears.

Evening Ritual

1. What Did I Enjoy?

2. What Did I Do Well Today?

3. What Did I Improve Or Improve Upon?

4. What Did I Learn?

5. How Can I Do Things Better Tomorrow?

By quickly jotting down the answers to these questions I am priming myself to look out for the things I am good at, and developing a habit of looking for the learning in everything I do. Seriously, these two exercises take less than 5 minutes, and the evidence is pretty clear that in doing so I am building some new pathways in my brain that will increase my level of happiness.

5. Full Catastrophe Living

Although mindfulness is often thought of as a practice steeped in mythology an evidence base has emerged from functional magnetic imagery (fMRI) and other scientific discoveries.

For instance, fMRI enables us to visualise the brains of people with a mindfulness practice. In these people, there is thickening of the neocortex. Our cognitive capacity is increased. It seems that mindfulness can re-wire our brains. In addition, study after study has shown that cultivating a mindfulness practice reduces the risk of anxiety and depression.

John Kabat-Zinn is one of the most authoritative figures in modern-day mindfulness practice and his Opus Magnus Full Catastrophe Living is available here.

6. Bonus Apps

In addition to reading John’s book, I’d also like to recommend a couple of apps that can give your mindfulness practice a kick start.

Each of them follows a similar program, introducing you to mindfulness with some guided sessions and then steadily increasing the amount of time spent or adding new themes.

The first is called Headspace and will work best if you prefer to have a male voice speaking to you through your earphones.The speaker is British, and there are occasional small videos to explain or illustrate learning points. I used Headspace myself when I first started my practice.

The second app, which is the one I use today is called Calm. The narrator is North American and female. There’s a beautiful little book to go along with it.

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COMMENT BELOWWhich books have inspired you?
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