First finished book of the summer was Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to ourselves: discovering the adaptive unconscious. This fascinating book is about us and how we don’t really know us at all. Trying – and to a good degree, succeeding – to explain the adaptive unconscious mind that has largely been overlooked in traditional theories of personality, Wilson takes the reader through a number of interesting topics and how our unconscious mind is a lot more complicated and “in charge” than what we’d like to think. What’s more, we don’t know why we do or think many of the things we do or think. And when we try to explain our actions, the result is mostly confabulation – our conscious mind making up, sometimes ridiculous, stuff to explain our actions while we are blissfully unaware that we’re making stuff up.
There is one part about emotional extremes. As has been shown in other studies, Wilson also brings up the notion of baseline happiness: that is, peoples’ level of happiness is inherent (even on a genetic, inheritable level) and people tend to return to their baseline level of happiness over time. Moreover, people tend to drastically overestimate the effect of either positive (“If I win the lottery, I’ll be happy forever!“) or negative (“I’ll never get over his/her death!“) events. For good or bad, people return to their baseline happiness much sooner than what they think they would. Both physiological and psychological mechanisms make sure there is no lasting euphoria – but also no lasting desperation.
Other topics include how children develop their theory of mind (and ingenious experiments to study this), how conscious emotions follow (and indeed, may be partly caused by) physical reactions, why too much introspection is both impossible and a bad thing, how prone we are to maintain an overly positive self-image (and why that may be good for you) etc.
While not exactly your typical summer-novel, this was excellent reading. Highly recommended.