Bookshelf

We Are All Zombies

How do our brains work? Why do we behave the way we behave? Unthink by Chris Paley has some excellent insights.

Chris Paley’s Unthink is a ride into our minds, both the conscious and the unconscious. But wait, according to him, minds don’t exist. The unconscious rules our lives and we are but zombies lurching inside our own brains. The insights from the book are often counterintuitive, refreshingly so.

Paley, an evolutionary biologist by training and sometime investment banker by profession, tries his hand at explaining social psychology, especially how we behave consciously and unconsciously. The book brims with insights on topics as varied as dating, sensory interdependence, justice and morality, modeling and prediction, and more.

For example, Paley helpfully explains that you are more likely be asked out on a date if you discreetly mimic your potential mate’s body language and speech, wear red, and somehow frighten them a little. (But, above all, avoid dating a psychologist who may know all these tricks and be able to manipulate you better than your attempt to manipulate them.) Worse, after you’ve embarked on a relationship, you may no longer know how you ended up with your partner!

One of the very interesting concepts explored in the book is sensory interdependence, largely through our unconscious. Our senses help each other complete the experience. We hear with our eyes and see with our ears, we touch with our eyes, not just with our hands. Our emotions and feelings have physical manifestations which we may not understand as they are guided by the unconscious.

I stumbled upon one example, while I was writing this review. During my prep, I typed out the chapter titles and some important paragraphs to help me better understand the book. I generally just type and let autocorrect fix my errors. In the beginning while typing “consciousness” or “unconsciousness” I would generally misspell it and MS Word would step in and fix the error. As I went on, I noticed that I was, without any effort, getting the spelling right nearly all the time. My unconsciousness seemed to have learned the spelling of itself! Of course, once I observed this, and typed this paragraph, my conscious mind misspelt itself.

The book is laid out like a long tasting menu with brief one-to-three-page chapters sampling psychological aphorisms. Paley skims through a wide variety of topics without delving into any one in depth. Just as a bite of beef is much less satisfying compared to a whole, juicy steak, Paley’s shallow skimming leaves me wanting to know more. There are extensive endnotes and an impressive list of 177 references, but the objective of reading a book is to get the main ideas from the body of the book, not scrounge around the endnotes and references to satisfy the hunger.

Additionally, he tilts at philosophical windmills, preferring explanations derived from psychological experiments to philosophical musings. He likens Plato’s preference for reason over emotion in Timaeus as a preference for cold, unfeeling psychopaths. Star Trek proves Paley wrong here: Spock was cold, unfeeling and reason-driven but was no psychopath.

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About the author

Yazad Jal

Yazad Jal is Fellow, Economic Policy at the Takshashila Institution.
Previously he worked for McKinsey and IBM in the United States and
before that in the non-profit sector in India, last serving as CEO of
Praja Foundation in Mumbai. Yazad has an MBA from Yale University and
a BA (Econ) from St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai University.