“Psychology writers also face a special challenge these days, and that is to resist the seductiveness of the brain. The insights in this volume come from paradigm-shifting work within the field of cognitive psychology. These advances have been accompanied by similar advances in the field of neuroscience, including the discovery of the brain’s remarkable neurochemistry and methods to watch the brain in action.
This rich, new science promises important new explanations of human behavior, and it has sparked a proliferation of books and other writing about brain science. As amazing as these insights are, they are still limited in their power to explain human thinking and emotion.
“What a peculiar privilege has this little agitation of the brain which we call ‘thought.’”
—David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
It’s a common mistake to think that writing about the brain is more sophisticated—or more scientific—than writing about the mind and behavior. And many writers buy into that fallacy. But, in fact, the opposite is true. Brain anatomy and brain chemistry are rooted in biology—hence their privileged status in science writing—but these inquiries do not explain nearly as much about human nature as they promise.
The simple fact is that the brain does not equal behavior, and reports on brain activity do not necessarily illuminate important questions—like why we do things that are not in our best interest. To get at these intriguing and complex questions, one must do the painstaking work of reading experimental psychology.
There is something of a backlash taking place right now against the reductionism and overpromising of neuroscience, with brain scientists themselves pointing out the limitations of the field. This is not to say that probing and scanning the brain is unimportant, and no doubt we will one day find meaningful answers in this approach, but for now the brain is not an explanation of the nuances of human psychology. For that, we still need to study psychology. DiSalvo wisely does not let himself be enticed by the easier—but less insightful—way of looking.
Serious psychology writers face another special challenge—how to rise above all the incredibly bad psychology writing on the market. The typical psychology section of most bookstores—often called the self-help section—is full of books pontificating on the human condition.
Some of the authors have academic credentials and some do not—but that really doesn’t seem to matter. All offer prescriptions for living better, but few of these prescriptions are rooted in science—or any kind of rigorous intellectual inquiry.
What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite is not a self-help book. Instead, it’s what the author calls “science help.” What this means is that DiSalvo has done the hard legwork of visiting laboratories and digesting the scientific literature, and he is now reporting back on the best scientific insights available on human thinking. The prescriptions are modest, as they should be, because the applied part of cognitive psychology is still young.
“There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”
—H. L. Mencken, The Divine Afflatus
The best that a science writer can offer right now—the most responsible course—is to make readers aware of the many and surprising ways that the human mind trips itself up in ordinary ways every day. Talking ourselves out of irrational and dangerous judgments and decisions remains our responsibility, but DiSalvo gives us some new and valuable tools.”