Mind Games: 31 Days to Rediscover Your Brain

December 9, 2010

This book advertises itself as a self-directed course to explore mind, brain and consciousness in a way that involves not just reading, but engaging in various activities that allow diligent students to bypass the authorities and secure knowledge for themselves. At least, that's what's advertised.

What is delivered is something else: a jumble of anecdotes and factoids gleaned largely from cognitive psychology (but also from mathematics, rock music, world politics, computer science, physics and philosophy). Sprinkled in with the anecdotes are suggested activities, many of which one cannot seriously expect the lay reader to conduct in 31 days.

The first half of the book presents 31 activities to be conducted in 31 days. In fact the number of activities is 37, and some days require one to carry out multiple tasks in order to squeeze it all into a month. Activities include testing the power of prayer (day 28), drawing a picture (day 21), spending a day not talking (day 7), walking on hot coals (day 16) and thinking about one's favourite animals (day 5).

The second half of the book presents debriefings in which the point and expected results of each activity are (sort of) explained. At the end is a brief collection of suggested readings.

But following the plan of activities, as opposed to just reading about them, is practically impossible. Many involve conducting experiments on a number of people. Some involve more time than is found in a day.

Day 14 involves obtaining, reading and summarising an entire book on self-help. Day 15 involves wearing upside-down goggles for several weeks. The goggles, which you build yourself using cardboard and mirrors, make everything look upside-down. Aside from the difficulty in fitting a multi-week task into a single day, one must wonder how the activities for days 15 through to 31 can possibly be pulled off while leaving the goggles on.

Day 19 involves going on a 10km walk on a coastal path while measuring it in metres, and then retracing the route while this time measuring it in centimetres. And that's just the morning. In the evening the conscientious student will be busy building and lying on a bed of nails.

It's hard to believe anyone would be motivated to follow Cohen's plan. There is no clear pay-off - the power to gain wealth and friendship, the ability to defeat enemies and obesity, etc. The reader is instead promised vague rewards such as a rediscovery of one's own brain or sense of self. Perhaps for some readers the vagueness of the promised rewards isn't an insurmountable obstacle. However, there are others.

Many of the days would require some planning. Remember: day 16 requires hot coals. To plan effectively, one should read the whole book first before executing the plan. But once one's read the book, why follow the plan?

Readers who don't follow the plan, and just read the book in the old-fashioned manner, will be rewarded by a somewhat fun hotchpotch containing many anecdotes from cognitive psychology, with digressions on backwards lyrics in Judas Priest songs, the history of the CIA, instructions for performing magic tricks and (rather bad) advice on winning arguments. You may not rediscover your brain. But you'll discover...something.

Mind Games: 31 Days to Rediscover Your Brain

By Martin Cohen. Wiley-Blackwell, 168pp, £9.99. ISBN 9781444337099. Published October 2010

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