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July 23, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds


A Mind of Its Own

How Your Brain Distorts

and Deceives

Cordelia Fine

Norton: 224 pp., $24.95

WE'RE keeping the truth from ourselves! "A Mind of Its Own" is a remarkably entertaining tale of the many ways our brains distort the world and protect our precious egos. "Failure is perhaps the greatest enemy of the ego, and that's why the vain brain does its best to barricade the door against this unwelcome guest," writes author Cordelia Fine.

"Your brain is vainglorious," says Fine, a research associate at Australian National University. "It's emotional and immoral. It deludes you. It is pigheaded, secretive, and weakwilled. Oh, and it's also a bigot."

Fine walks us through the prefrontal cortex, where emotions rule judgment, and studies showing that "[w]e are strangely blind to how the subtleties of other people's situations might affect them. Our sensitivity to the context, so sharply tuned when we apply it to ourselves, becomes sloppy and careless when we focus on others."

She reveals the brain's unflagging penchant for delusion (i.e., "seeking evidence that supports whichever hypothesis we happen to be entertaining"); its secrecy (no wonder we have to pay professionals to tell us why we do things!); and its generally weak-willed nature. "It's hard work being in charge of a brain," Fine writes. Though by the end of "A Mind of Its Own," it seems perfectly clear that we are not really in charge at all.



in the House

Life Stories

Dorothy Gallagher

Random House: 176 pp., $22.95

DOROTHY Gallagher chooses facts, characters and anecdotes from her own life and arranges them as one might flowers in a vase, in artful, self-contained units called stories. Her first book, "How I Came Into My Inheritance," was a memoir of growing up in New York in the 1940s, the daughter of left-wing Russian Jewish immigrants. Her newest, "Strangers in the House," is set in Brooklyn Heights, the Upper West Side, a loft in the Bowery, in her young adulthood in the 1960s and married life in the 1970s. There is no denying that details possess more heat and immediacy when they are facts; as powerful as the imagination is, its creations are like second-generation recordings of music.

Sifting through the memories, Gallagher is on the lookout for lessons: "Oh my goodness, the themes you stumble over as you make your way from day to day!" she writes in the title story. "Trust, Betrayal, Class, Hypocrisy, Love, Hate, Greed, Sickness, Health. It only needs War and Peace. Somewhere in all this, there must be a lesson."

Try as she might, the lessons elude Gallagher. But in the writing and the accompanying photos she has taken, Gallagher captures moments of intensity, of change and kinetic energy.


Underwater to Get Out of the Rain

A Love Affair With the Sea

Trevor Norton

DaCapo Press: 385 pp., $25

"Ididn't misspend my youth," insists Trevor Norton, professor of marine biology at the University of Liverpool. "In fact, I didn't spend it at all. It just fell through a hole in my pocket." This is the boyish tone he takes throughout the story of his love affair with the sea in "Underwater to Get Out of the Rain."

Norton grew up on England's northeastern coast. He studied marine biology (and soccer) in Liverpool in the '60s. ("If only I'd known it was going to become 'Liverpool in the Sixties,' I'd have paid more attention.") He went on to lead expeditions of biologists and anthropologists around the world and establish a marine laboratory on the Isle of Man. In many ways, the most romantic locations Norton visits are close to home: the Yorkshire coast, the Hebrides, the Northumberland coast, Puffin Island and the shores of Wales. He captures these wild places in all their ancient glory: landscapes filled with fairies and hags (many in modern dress).

Norton still delights at being in water: "To swim naked is to be truly embraced by water; to feel it easing past your body is to become fluid."

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