Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain, By Shankar Vedantam (and Bill Mesler)

Podcast listeners are—or certainly should be—familiar with Hidden Brain, a fascinating podcast filled with lots of interesting info.

Useful Delusions, as you might guess from the subtitle, The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain, is Vedantam’s distillation of ideas from the podcast, captured in much greater depth because of the relative sizes of a podcast and a book, even a relatively short book.

First…who is Bill Mesler? What was his role as (co)author of this book? It turns out—and I didn’t know this before—that Mesler is a science writer, so I am guessing that he was responsible for most of the actual writing, or perhaps rewriting, and that Vedantam was responsible for the content, as the book is written in his voice. But that’s just a guess.

Anyway, you want to know what the book is about. Well, the title and subtitle do tell you. Even though Vedantam is a rationalist, thoroughly devoted to the truth, he attempts to convince us that some delusions can be useful, or at least powerful. I’m half convinced. The book seems to be modeled on the writings of Oliver Sacks. It consists largely of well-organized and related anecdotes, all selected to make a point. Occasionally there are some quantitative data. Altogether this makes for engaging reading, feeling more like narrative than science. That’s okay. After all, it’s well known that stories convince people; numbers don’t. Useful Delusions is mostly about mind rather than brain, despite the podcast title. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say “despite,” as the word “hidden” suggests something more abstract than the organic brain.

When I say that most of the citations are anecdotes, I don’t mean that they are without sources. In fact, the book has great endnotes, worth reading in their own right! But too many of the studies that are cited have very few subjects and no numbers quoted in their results.

Even though the emphasis is on anecdotes, the book is based on copious research, with plenty of sources cited. This is particularly true in Vedantam’s discussion of the placebo effect, a topic that you surely expect in a work with this title and subtitle. I’m still wrestling with the claim that the placebo effect is powerful even when fake surgery is performed; there must be more there than the author claims. On the other hand, he claims that “our minds yearn for sacred causes,” so maybe that’s what is going on. I am inevitably drawn to two dramatic works that are peripherally related to this work: one is Les Miz, where the participants in the uprising are somehow sympathetic (“the good guys”), in contrast with the January 6 uprising at the U.S. Capitol, where the participants are clearly not at all sympathetic (“the bad guys”). That bears further thought. The other work is Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, where the reader/viewer’s devotion to the truth is severely challenged. Read Useful Delusions and think about it!

Categories: Books, Life