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Your Brain: The Missing Manual

The Brain was never going to be as cut-and-dried as a technical Missing Manual, and it felt accordingly softer. People looking for a reference with a set of procedures to follow will be disappointed. Indeed someone who keeps half an eye out a for ways to increase their effectiveness will likely be aware of much of the more useful information already.

The book starts with care and feeding for your brain - nutrition and sleep. There's solid basic information on what your brain needs to function well, but some conclusions feel highly speculative.

Perception and memory come next, with important points made about the brain's bad habit of filtering the world through its in-built pattern matcher. While it starts as a slightly contrived excuse to print a series of shiny optical illusions, it makes good points about how little you can trust your senses and memory. There's also an excellent (inadvertent) study in how /not/ to design a memory test. Printing 12 different images of a US penny, each with one different permutation from the correct answer makes for a trivial test.

Reasoning is well treated, with good information on how debating tactics, statistics and other such crimes are used to subvert the brain's way of working. The book also picks a couple of lateral thinking techniques, to help exercise our creative side.

Moving onto emotions, motivation, stress and personality, the manual provides good context, but gets a little lost on the way to providing anything new.

Finally, gender and age issues. There's a thorough deconstruction of the biochemistry of love and relationships, and some interesting biology of the developing brain. We learn that teenagers are stroppy for Actual Scientific Reasons, and that everything you know about gender differences is wrong.

My most significant finds were the way the brain warps reality by filtering our perception through its pattern matching machine, and its bad habit of pretending to reason when it's really just working hard to justify a decision it has already reached.

Ultimately, I found the book longer on waffle and shorter on concrete than I had hoped. Still, it provided enough important themes and tips to be useful, particularly to an audience which is new to this area. I also found the author a little too eager on occasion to mention studies which were less widely accepted and to draw conclusions from them. The book is noticeably written for an American audience, some may find the regular US references jarring.

Of course, this position could just be the product of a brain which already jumped to the conclusion that the book wasn't going to be as rigorous as a technical manual, and has merely reinforced that through confirmation bias. You'll have to read it to find out.

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