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Saturday, May 22nd, 2010
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Mind Hacks: Tips and Tricks for Using Your Brain (O'Reilly's Hacks Series)

by Tom Stafford and Matt Webb

Hacking the Brain Without a Scalpel

A review by Doug Brown

The O'Reilly Hacks series is mainly for computer folks, consisting of titles like Google Hacks, Windows XP Hacks, etc. The format is made up of little articles, each a couple pages long, each describing a different tip and trick for using a program. In Mind Hacks, each article, or "hack," is a little nugget about how our brains work, from visual processing to memory. The reader is given a task at the beginning of the hack, and then the explanation describes what about our brains gave the observed result. Most of the explanations have references to other hacks in the book which deal with similar phenomenon.

Each hack can be read without necessarily having read the preceding text, allowing the reader to skip around. Similar topics are gathered together in chapters, so if you are curious about some particular aspect of how our minds function, you can just read that chapter. However, if you do read consecutively, there is a fair amount of repetition. In the section on vision, the term saccade is defined three times in ten pages (saccades are the little rapid flicks in gaze our eyes automatically make). Also, throughout the book the numerous references to other hacks are in a green font, and are all slightly superscripted (or sometimes subscripted) from the regular text, making for distracting reading. In the next edition they should have a hack about why it's so annoying to read text which isn't printed on an even level.

While this isn't a computer book per se, the O'Reilly folks can't escape their roots; it is still aimed at computer users. Many of the hacks are demonstrated on websites; so every few pages you have to get on your computer, type in a long web address, and watch a little Flash movie. You're often instructed to do this before reading further. This is convenient for those people who sit in front of their computers to read, but not for the rest of us. I do much of my reading while riding light rail to and from work and never saw most of the online examples. However, from the descriptions, I could tell what the clip showed, so this didn't keep me from being able to understand the concepts.

Folks should know, Mind Hacks isn't intended to be read the way I read it: linearly, away from a computer. Instead, I would describe this as an "interactive" book, to be picked up, flipped through, played with, and put back down without necessarily bookmarking your place. The articles are interesting and explained well, and the examples in the book are engaging. If you just want to sit down and read a book from front to back on this subject, Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works is highly recommended. If you want to learn some wacky things about how our minds function without wading through a standard nonfiction tome, Mind Hacks is the book you're after.

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