On April 18, 1955, Life magazine photographer Ralph Morse captured some extraordinary images on the day that the pioneering physicist Albert Einstein died of heart failure, aged 76.
An iconic image of Morse’s shows Einstein’s office desk at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey, exactly as the scientist had left it. With papers scattered in all directions and a few personal effects hinting at the personality of an eccentric mind, it’s an image of beautiful chaos.
If Einstein’s desk on the day of his death were a book, it could well be Mariano Sigman’s The Secret Life Of The Mind: How Our Brain Thinks, Feels And Decides.
The Argentinian cognitive neuroscientist – a physicist by training – opens us up to the world of possibilities of the mind, dealing in an array of fantastic hypotheticals, which serves up delicious mind candy for anyone with an interest in neuroscience, consciousness, and human behaviour.
In an age where we’re only just beginning to scratch the surface of how our brain works and why we behave in the ways we do, neuroscience is a thrilling field of study made all the more fascinating (and accessible) thanks to books such as The Secret Life Of The Mind.
Sigman’s book is a cornucopia of ideas infused with his own character and charisma. While it’s difficult to eke out any sense of organised structure, the Argentinian’s style is precisely what makes the book a compelling read.
In the first part of the book, he explores developmental psychology, with an unconscious or otherwise nod to Paul Bloom’s Just Babies (Crown, 2013), which explores the moral and reasoning capacities of newborns and infants and examines how the mind is shaped in our first few years.
Moving on, Sigman navigates the murky world of cognitive psychology in adults, with an emphasis on consciousness and how we make our decisions. Finally, the reader is invited to think about the way in which we learn and about how neuroscience might help to transform education models and approaches.
A particular plus-side to a lack of clear structure is that the book is peppered with little gems here and there that truly pique the interest. One imagines the parallel of rummaging through Einstein’s desk and finding scrawled notes pertaining to potential secrets to the universe.
Sigman gives us a tour of some of his ongoing experiments, such as moral reasoning in infants, or the computer program that can detect whether we might develop psychosis through the words we use – an illuminating subject Sigman discusses in his TED Talk “Your words may predict your future mental health” (online at tinyurl.com/star2tedtalk).
He also points to our unconscious mind, making the argument that it often “knows” more than we do at our gross conscious level.
In an interesting experiment measuring the heart rate of chess players, he was able to observe rises in heart rate and sweating in players whose opponents make erroneous moves, potentially before the players are consciously aware of it. Sigman offers the opinion that we should learn to become more in-tune with such unconscious signals and listen to what they’re trying to tell us.
At points, the book borders on the mad and the eccentric but then again, the best scientists often have an eccentric streak; it’s what makes them so enthralling. In a time when much of what’s discussed sits firmly in the “safe zone” lest reputations be blemished, Sigman puts himself out there with all sorts of hypotheticals, making his book one that presents all that’s fun about science but without losing any of the substance and seriousness of the method.
Having said that, Sigman does appear at times to fall into the modern-day trap of asserting findings without much caveat or questioning. If the scientific method has a single defining quality, it is surely its proclivity to place an emphasis on disconfirmation as a means to combat confirmation bias.
Nevertheless, The Secret Life Of The Mind is a wholly enjoyable journey into the mind and one that’s presented by one of the most enthusiastic, colourful and charismatic minds in science today.
The Secret Life Of The Mind – How Our Brain Thinks, Feels And Decides
Author: Mariano Sigman
Publisher: William Collins, nonfiction