Finding patterns

'Scatterbrain: How the mind’s mistakes make humans creative, innovative, and successful', by Henning Beck (Greystone Books; £17.99); reviewed by April Mangion.

Rarely does a book argue two contradictory views with such conviction for both sides. Beck provides a strong case for why our brains are paradoxically amazing yet utterly useless. Scatterbrain is the perfect explanation for one’s great achievements and an excellent excuse for those frequent mishaps. Best of all it justifies why on ending the book you will recall little of it; because in order to learn our brain also requires efficient forgetting ability.

Beck offers an up-to-date and comprehensive gathering of neuroscience discoveries. Do not be mistaken that such a wealth of information is a heavy read. To the contrary, Scatterbrain feels like sitting in an engaging lecture. It is lively, full of examples and activities to illustrate our brains in action and flows like a story. For those new to neuroscience, or who find it hard to grasp, the biological information is woven in with clarity and gentleness, yet without alienating more advanced neuroscience readers.

The central premise of the book holds that pattern building is the key to understanding brain activity. Finding patterns allows our brains to know what to remember and what to forget. Pattern making gives a basis for memory formation, allowing for decision making and behavioural choices. Pattern formulation is how humans survive. Reassuringly for those who struggle with maths, this is why calculations often present problems; the brain was never designed for calculations, but to identify patterns in a creative fashion.

Sections of the book are a worrying read for modern life, such as the exploration of current learning and education systems. Our brains, according to Beck, are not geared for data-, fact-, and information-based learning; especially when adding pressure into the mix. Likewise, the clock watchers amongst us are fighting a losing battle. We are not equipped to judge time, our memory function ignores time in the construction and recall process; that’s why we often misjudge the length of events, and how long something will take. Routines, which many people and institutions strive towards, bore the brain; we need more balance of routine and spontaneity. As for modern motivational techniques (monetary incentives and praising), these undermine our instinctual motivational process, which is not to lose. Striving to gain demotivates.

Although Scatterbrain is not pitched at the self-help market, it does offer strategies for maximising the gifts our brains offer. However, these come with a dialectical offering. Removing distraction and being distracted are claimed to be equally beneficial; having choice but not so much that we become overloaded. This is a book of explanation rather than concrete answers.

Beck’s parting opinion is that intelligence is increasing while creativity is decreasing. The human mind is what makes us unique, but modern life ignores the natural working of the brain. It is creativity that constructs individuals and the progression of society. Asking our brains to be efficient, predictable, and holder of all memories is a rather tall order. You may be left wondering if you ask too much of yours.

Reviewed by April Mangion, Trainee Counselling Psychologist, Middlesex University and New School of Psychotherapy and Counselling

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