Independent choice: science books

Stupid things, mirrors," the comedian Tony Hancock said in one of his Sixties radio programmes. "Why can't they reflect things properly?" For many years, the neuropsychologist Richard Gregory has persisted in believing that Hancock's question deserves an answer and that many of those on offer are plainly wrong. His mission has been to show that our experience of mirrors, and of optical illusions, can help us to think about the still mysterious processes of perception. With abundant examples drawn not only from science but also from art, psychology and other domains, his latest book Mirrors in Mind (WH Freeman/ Spektrum, pounds 25) brings these issues to life with exceptional clarity and vitality.

Hancock's irritation stemmed from the fact that things seen in a looking- glass are reversed from left to right, but not top to bottom. "Mirror writing", for example, does not appear upside down. But this is by no means the only oddity. Look at each of your eyes alternately in a mirror. They do not appear to move. Yet a friend's eyes clearly do move if you ask him or her to look at one of your eyes and then the other. Why?

As Richard Gregory indicates, the first step towards understanding these phenomena is to realise that they raise questions at all. Gregory is an illuminating pilot, leading us through many competing interpretations to his goal of establishing that perception is not a passive acquisition of information from the outside world. It is an active process in which our brain uses past experience as well as incoming sensory cues.

"The paradox of seeing oneself through a mirror while knowing one is in front of it ... is not in the mirror or the light," Gregory writes. "It is in our perception. If we were either more or less stupid, such paradoxes might change, or disappear, or become even richer."

Mirrors also appear in How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then and Now (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 11.99). The neurophysiologist William Calvin describes how some animals can recognise themselves in a mirror, while others try to attack or befriend the reflected image. A capuchin monkey will spend weeks threatening the "other animal" when a mirror is placed in its cage, whereas chimpanzees know who it is either immediately or within a few days.

Calvin considers and then eliminates the idea of self-recognition as something that intelligence is not. He discards IQ, too, because it is simply "one fascinating aspect of intelligence", which should not subsume others. The capacity for complex behaviour is another tempting definition of intelligence, but not a plausible one because it can be innate, wired in from birth.

Calvin is much more taken by Jean Piaget's notion that intelligence is what you use when you don't know what to do: "This captures the element of novelty, the coping and groping needed when there is no `right answer'." Yet this seems not to be the entire story, either. Likewise with speed of learning, which is simply "related to intelligence". Perhaps, Calvin concludes, intelligent behaviour is really the capacity to combine these and other mental abilities.

His book is not only an assessment of intelligence per se but also an examination of how evolution has produced increasingly intelligent brains over the last few million years. Calvin brings both strands together by modernising William James's suggestion that thought involves Darwin's concept of the selection of randomly generated novelty. He points to "brain wiring that could operate the fully-fledged Darwinian process, and probably on the milliseconds-to-minutes time-scale of consciousness." This, he says, "has provided me with the best glimpses so far of mechanisms for higher intellectual function: how we can guess, speak sentences we've never spoken before, and even operate on a metaphorical plane."

By no means all Calvin's peers will follow him in discerning Darwin beneath our mental life. Yet it is a challenging theory, founded on a variety of evidence. It requires only a change of time-scale to sound highly plausible: the capacity of cells in the immune system to generate within days, through a quasi-Darwinian process, antibodies to match an astronomical range of antigens which they encounter in invading microbes.

Paul Martin, in The Sickening Mind: Brain, Behaviour, Immunity and Disease (HarperCollins, pounds 16.99) is concerned not with the analogy between mind and the immune system, but with the emerging links between the two. His primary task is to explain how stress and depression may increase our chances of developing infections, heart disease and even cancer. The "may" is important, not least because evidence that we can prevent illness by mobilising mental resources is less overwhelming than popular health books claim.

However, Martin is a sure guide in this controversial field - and an eloquent one. Like Richard Gregory, he bases his case in part on the observations of Shakespeare and other literary giants of the past. But it is contemporary science which most strongly supports his contention that the relationship of mind to health is mediated both by our behaviour, and by biological connections between the brain and the immune system.

Contemporary science is not yet ready to endorse Sir Roger Penrose's elegantly argued suggestion that consciousness itself is associated with the microtubules in brain cells. In The Large, the Small and the Human Mind (Cambridge University Press, pounds 14.95), the Oxford mathematician is joined by his critics Abner Shimony, Nancy Cartwright and Stephen Hawking, to review Penrose's theory that thinking takes place by "non-computational" means. The jury is still out, but this book is a stimulating and compact review of Penrose's own thinking.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home