Not the only paper you should find in your bathroom.
Books in the Bog
Reading for longer visits
September's Book

Mind Hacks

by Tom Stafford, Matt Webb

Paperback, 394 pages ISBN: 0596007795
Published by O'Reilly, Further info from
Mind Hacks cover
Image courtesy of
Think different.

In our never-ending quest to educate ourselves, this month's BITB stays in the scientific realm and looks at the brain, with Tom Stafford and Matt Webb's Mind Hacks. Many a time has someone accused me of being a mentalist, and I'd have to agree with them, the study of how our minds work fascinates me, as does it a whole community of scientists, psychologists, physiologists, linguists, you name and ist, the brain has confounded most of them for as long as we've been studying it.

Mind Hacks is, fortunately for our toilet shelves, anything but an academic text book, yet manages to still do a great job in introducing how some of the mind's systems work, though simple examples you can try at home (even in your loo if you don't feel too odd occasionally taking in the odd volunteer).

Broken down into a number of chapters, or collections of Hacks, like all books in this O'Reilly series, this book covers topics from explaining what Cognative Psychology is, through to hacks on visual, aural and language, movement and memory, even providing a fair few tricks you can play on your most cynical of friends.

For a BITB book, even the authors themselves say that its an ideal piece to dip in and out of, each hack is referenced to any pre-requisite reading, so you're not going to miss anything, and the length of each hack is just enough for a average sitting. You may, however, find yourself rushing out of the toilet to try one of the books suggestions. My copy is truly crumpled and well thumbed now, but its a good size to hold and has a splash proof cover. A fascinating insight into the mind, with a brilliant approach and sense of humour.

Matt Webb, co author of Mind Hacks talks to BITB about how he got into the field of the mind, and a little about his reading habits:

BITB: How did you first get interested in the mind, and cognitive science?
Here's the thing: I have no formal background in anything cognitive.
As a kid I really liked HAL from 2001 and wrote primitive neural networks on my Amiga. A tutor at college had Steven Pinker's _Language Instinct_ in his office, lent it to me, and that caught my imagination too. Then of course my work online, in social software, had led me into group psychology.

These were all clues that, although still free people, there are patterns to our actions--certain grooves that we tend to move down, moment-by-moment.

Now I also have an interest in cybernetics, where the idea-flow is from how cognition happens to how systems - and computers - are constructed (sometimes, unfortunately, the flow goes the other way). I didn't read the paper seminal paper of that subject, _What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain_, until recently... but I had read _Steps to an Ecology of Mind_ by Gregory Bateson some time ago, and it told me that these patterns, these grooves, were amenable to study. That was what opened up the mind to me.

BITB: What prompted you and Tom to write the book?
I can date the prompt precisely. I was at a social software conference in June 2003, and a friend was buying good wine and telling us about a particular kind of optical illusion involving moving surfaces. I think it was about not seeing certain changes; I don't remember.
Whatever it was, the illusion happened because the brain was taking a short-cut in processing the visual information. That made me laugh, it seemed so absurd and counter to what I imagined about the brain. The Hacks books were just becoming popular at the time so we came up with the idea of "Cortex Hacks" (you see where this is going).

Of course, I wouldn't be able to write this myself. I mentioned the idea to everyone I met for the next few months, and one of those people was Tom. His response stood out: First he said that he'd got a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience since we'd been at school together (we'd met only once or twice since then), and second he gave me *other* cortex hacks with exactly the right depth and sense of fun.


I told Tom that I'd help him write the pitch, introduce the idea to O'Reilly when I next went to one of their conferences (where I was speaking), and then I'd look forward to reading the book when it was done thank-you-very-much.

It turned out to make more sense if we wrote together, to bridge the cognitive and internet worlds. And that was that.

The 'Hacks' collection are quite eclectic in their topics, if you could write another, any topic, what would it be?
I admit I thought about a few gag answers for this, but I'm going to be sensible.

When we wrote Mind Hacks we believed that research on the brain and mind was about to burst through into the mainstream, and I think we judged that correctly.

At the moment, methods of persuasion feel that important to me, from Douglas Rushkoff's _Coercion_, his Technologies of Persuasion course and Captology, to NLP, neuromarketing, the various seduction books, cults and so on. Of course there's psychology (especially automaticity), school education, methods of torture, advertising, biofeedback, business negotiating, Getting Things Done (persuasion applied to yourself)...

And it feels like these methods are coming up in the press, being used on people, showing themselves in self-help books.

I'd like to write Persuasive Hacks, giving clear instructions for wielding the whole range of these technologies and techniques. Not entirely moral, perhaps, but it could open some eyes too.

Which is your favourite mind hack?
Do I have to keep to 1? I love all of Chapter 10 because it's about automaticity, and how people are unknowingly influenced to walk slowly, say, or be impatient by the words and images that they see.

I like everything with timings or that deals with the way our attention is allocated, because those hacks let me identify the feeling of being tugged by a flashing light when I'm walking down the street or when I miss an icon on my desktop because there's a fancy one right next to it. I can (and do 2006/02/mindhacks/) put those ideas into practice in interaction design.

But I guess my favourite is Hack #56, Don't Go There. It's about responding to stimuli that can appear from either direction. I didn't believe the paper when I read it, so I went and did an experiment on the street opposite my house. I watched cars going past and tapped my left or right knee depending on whether they were blue or red.

And when the cars came from the left or right, it interfered with my knee tapping, even though I knew each car's direction was unimportant! It actually did feel harder! It was as the paper said, and I could feel the edges of the grooves of my cognition.

So it's a tiny thing, but it's what makes the hacks most real for me. My own little moment of finding-out.

Reading or writing, which do you prefer?
I love reading - cheesy sci-fi and philosophy mainly - and I love the ideas that come from that. But writing is harder (I run a short fiction website too and when, rarely, I'm able to express what I mean, the feeling is magical.

What books do you have in your toilet?

If you were accidentally locked in a toilet for hours, what one book would you have with you?
It would have to be Ursula Le Guin's collection of short stories _The Birthday of the World_, in particular the novella at the end _Paradises Lost_.

It's a story about a generation ship--a space-ship whose journey is so long that people are born and die aboard. And, she asks, what beliefs and changes unfold from the fact you are always contained, and always in transit. As with all of Le Guin's writing, it's beautiful and you can spend hours thinking about every line.

I first read this book on a 4 day train ride, on my own, after my iPod and laptop had both run down, and I was sleep deprived, subsisting on Tic Tacs and Coke. That the topic of the story met my situation so well was synchronicity itself.

I would hope that I would escape the toilet in somewhat less than 4 days, and definitely sooner than 6 generations, but there's enough packed into _Paradises Lost_ to keep me going for a very long time.

Plus the edition I have is large size with many pages and good quality paper, so if desperate I could eat it.

Matthew Knight with thanks to Matt Webb