Dim the lights, cue the creepy organ music, rev up the fog machine, because I’ve got a whopper of a spooky story to share with you. Fans of Stephen King, Dean Koontz and that master of contemporary horror, Danielle Steel, gather round, and screenwriters or fictionists take note: this is true-life terror, so you may find grist for your mills here, since the subject matter is fair game and knows no copyright restrictions. It also knows no shame.
I speak of a nearly unspeakable horror, whose heinous proclivities defy human rationality. Imagine, if you will, a demon-like apparatus planted within your body from birth, with an agenda so insidious and skills so evilly ingenious that the mind reels in comprehension.
This… thing distorts your perception of reality, feeds your prejudices, betrays your moral code, feeds your vanity, weakens your will. Serving only its own guilefully secretive ends, it deludes you at every turn. And – most horrific of its horrible skills – it fools you into thinking that you are its master, while all the while, it is the true ruler of your quotidian life, and you, its hoodwinked slave.
Science fiction? Merely another headline from the Enquirer, or Fox News? No, my little ones, this is all too real. Be afraid, be vewwy afwaid. Because I’m talking about… (mwah-ha-ha-hah!)…
Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives is hands down the most terrifying book I’ve read in years, and I’m not being facetious when I say this. I found its contents so profoundly upsetting that I had to go through it a chapter at a time, dealing its dastardly revelations out slowly; there was only so much truth I could take on a given day.
Because it is truth that Fine’s highly readable, not at all academic tome traffics in, or at least, the closest to truth That Thing In One’s Head lets one comprehend without pre-packaging. Fine, with a degree in experimental psych from Oxford among other illustrious credits, expertly explicates the brain’s innate tendency towards self-delusion. And she backs up her conclusions with a plethora of studies conducted by professionals from all over the globe.
What these studies and research experiments cumulatively have to say about how the human brain “pushes, pulls, twists and warps our perceptions” is enough to encourage thoughts of suicide. The brain, in Fine’s presentation, is a quintessentially egotistical prima donna, voraciously self-serving and self-aggrandizing, automatically employing “hindsight bias, wishful thinking, unrealistic optimism and moral excuse-making” to make us feel that we’re okay (and you’re not), no matter what uncomfortable reality we may be experiencing.
The book’s divided into chapters – The Vain Brain, The Pigheaded Brain, The Bigoted Brain, etc. – which highlight different aspects of why “your unscrupulous brain is entirely undeserving of your confidence.” In sum:
An adroit manipulator of information, the brain leaves us staring at a mere façade of reality. Vanity shields us from unpalatable truths about ourselves. Craven methods of moral bookkeeping also attentively serve the principle of self-glorification, often at others’ expense… Irrationality clouds our judgment, leaving us vulnerable to errors and delusions—a situation that is only worsened by our stubbornness. The secretive unconscious delights in a handful of strings to pull, concealing from us many of the true influences on our thoughts and deeds. Our very own will, temperamental and capricious, weakly succumbs to unwanted impulses and distractions…
All of which leads one to one inescapable conclusion: we’re fucked. We are very, very fucked.
Fine has, thank goodness, a great sense of humor to leaven her grim tidings, and one of her favorite running gags is to address the reader when a particular finding is apt to make one squirm. You’re probably thinking, she’ll say, that this [horrible brain tendency] isn’t true of you – and she got me almost every time, I’m unhappy to say, I realized that my own mind had been subliminally whispering this reassuring thought to make me feel better – thus proving, fait accompli, that what was true of them (say, habitual denial) was clearly true of me.
So just when you’re reading along with a deluded sense of self-righteousness – reacting, for example, to that electrical shock study with a relieved sense that you, however, don’t have a mean bone in your body, you’re suddenly brought up short with the realization that you do, in fact, have at least enough mean bones to string up a little skeleton on your door for October 31st.
Don’t mean to scare you off of A Mind of Its Own (nice title, by the way, and the only other book with the identical title is a book about the penis, speaking of organs that have no shame). I actually think it should be required reading for all humans, as it might just nudge a few of us into questioning ourselves a little more readily (reading Fine, I finally found myself comprehending a certain mindset of the Bush administration – not forgiving, mind you, but understanding).
And as a primer on human behavior, this is an awesome resource for writers (not since the last Chekhov story I read, did I find myself so often thinking: yes – ouch -- that’s what we’re really like). If nothing else, Fine’s book has given me the costume to wear this Tuesday night. I’m going to attach a cardboard arrow pointing to the top of my noggin, with the words “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” written across my forehead, or perhaps simply, “It’s ALIVE!!!”