Your mind. You’d think it would be on your side, huh? In fact it’s a wanton lover, as deceitful and lazy as it is dexterous. But: celebrate. Science is shaping new ways for you to command your cortex – insights which, to extend the metaphor, will have your mind blowing you at dawn before calling her Swedish friend for some naked house cleaning. In short, we didn’t used to recognise the degree to which we were being short-changed by our brains, but psychology and neuroscience are now describing techniques by which we can become faster, more brilliant, more dazzlingly successful.
A couple of new books show the way. The first is by the leader in the field of behavioural psychology, Daniel Kahneman, a septuagenarian with an avuncular air and a Nobel Prize. A lifetime of research has culminated in Thinking, Fast And Slow (Allen Lane, £25). It explores the degree to which our conscious mind is ruled by our whimsical intuition. “The intuitive mind is the secret author of many of the choices you make,” he says. From a series of observations, Kahneman unlocks the secrets of unwitting behaviour: how blood-sugar levels can subvert our decisions (a group of judges assessing prisoners granted almost zero parole to candidates they saw shortly before lunch, but gave parole to 65 per cent of those they interviewed once they’d eaten). How, when a canteen honesty box was decorated with a picture of watchful eyes, people were three times more likely to pay. He provides the wisdom for us to avoid the pitfalls.
Willpower (Allen Lane, £20) by psychologists Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney, provides a different road map. “Willpower is one of the key predictors of success in life,” Baumeister tells GQ. “Making small, positive changes can hugely enhance it.” Willpower explains how an ill-ordered shaving cabinet or hole in your sock could be the Achilles heel holding you back.
The box being opened by neuroscience may be closer to Pandora’s: beyond the psychological lessons is a brave new world where drugs can enhance memory, where electric currents can double your intellect. In a dystopian version, the future divides us into aggressive thought-leaders and slower drone workers. It could also create supermen: athletes and soldiers already use many of the techniques. This work on our mind is the story of the next century.
“We can already change behaviour and emotions – information which is important to advertisers and to governments,” says Kahneman. “[Neuroscience will] open up completely new ways of doing things.”