May Reading Roundup

Computational neuroscience, free speech, and more in this month’s reads

I get a lot of positive feedback on my book recommendations, so in an effort to ensure coverage of all my reading, I am going to begin doing monthly reading roundups here on my newsletter to provide some brief thoughts about each book. If you’re curious about what I look for when evaluating books, check out my previous newsletter on the topic. And don’t forget that you can track what I’m reading on my Goodreads, too.

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When Men Behave Badly, by David Buss

David Buss (my academic grandfather) is a wonderful writer, as is evident by the numerous books he’s published over the course of his career. His most recent book, When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment, and Assault (April 2021), was a nostalgic read for me as it covered his career of research that was foundational to my doctorate work with Todd Shackelford. Applying theoretical frameworks like sexual strategies theory from the field of evolutionary psychology, David clearly demonstrates the utility of an evolutionary perspective for understanding various sexual phenomena in our societies today. An easy, enjoyable, and engaging read, When Men Behave Badly is a must read for those interested in evolutionary perspectives on human behavior and those looking for a non-patriarchal and sociological view of problem sexual behavior.


Silicon Values, by Jillian York

Our social world has dramatically changed – for better or for worse – since the rise of the major social tech companies of Facebook, Twitter, and Google. In the timely Silicon Values: The Future of Free Speech Under Surveillance Capitalism (March 2021), Jillian York provides an insightful narrative into the haphazard methods by which the major social tech companies have constructed their moderation policies over the years since their founding. With recent events such as permabanning the 45th President of the United States, and initial censoring of news stories on lab leak theory of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s pertinent to understand how the major social tech companies, especially Facebook, can influence not only local markets, but also global politics. The end of the book got a bit too “activist-y” for my personal liking, but the book was nonetheless an insightful read into the history of moderation policy in Silicon Valley.


7 ½ Lessons About the Brain, by Lisa Barrett

The brain is the least understood organ in existence – and for good reason! The scientific fields that formally study how the mind works are young relative to other mature sciences like physics, and the brain is an enormously complex organ. In 7 ½ Lessons About the Brain (November 2020), Lisa Barrett clears up some pervasive misconceptions about how our brains work (in so far as we really know!) in this punchy short book. Her primary thesis of the book – that our brains are for regulating our bodies, rather than for thinking – is an interesting new take in my opinion. The book is structured into discrete chapters focusing on specific new takes on our brain, from how our brain constructs our reality though predictive models to the need to view our brains at networks. There were a few points in some chapters that stated facts that are in direct contrast to my own knowledge of the area, such as our brain 128 billion neurons – a (very large) number I have never heard previously – to the claim that the human mind1 has no “universal defining features” (??), to arguing that the size of our cerebral cortex is “not evolutionarily novel” and requires no “special explanation”. Overall, however, it was an enjoyable short read about the functioning of the human brain.


Models of the Mind, by Grace Lindsay

This was a book that I was very much looking forward to reading. The field of psychology and behavioral science are notoriously non-computational, relying heavily on inferential statistics, broad generalizations, and subjective interpretation and projection. In Models of the Mind: How Physics, Engineering, and Mathematics Have Shaped Our Understanding of the Brain (May 2021), Grace Lindsay shares pivotal science stories of how the hard sciences have provided great insight into how our brain functions. Lindsay does a phenomenal job at explaining complex computational discoveries in plain and accessible language accompanied by simple diagrams to expertly bridge scientific discovery to the general reader. History of science is a favorite genre of mine, so having each chapter dive into historical narratives of how pieces of knowledge came to be was enjoyable to read. I found myself thinking what a great pair Models of the Mind would be along with The Idea of the Brain, by Matthew Cobb, as a comprehensive history of psychology and neuroscience. Not to mention, the physical book of Models of the Mind is slightly smaller than standard books, which I found very enjoyable as it was perfectly comfortable to hold.


1

Post-publishing comment: As pointed out by a comment below, LFB states specifically that the “mind” not the “brain” as I originally stated above has “no universal defining features”. I still disagree with her statement.

Here is the full paragraph for context (p. 104):

“As far as I can tell, the human mind has no unviersal defining features. Pick any mental feature that’s unique to humans, such as rich, spoken language, an you can always find some humans who don’t have it, such as new-born infants. Alternatively, pick any mental feature that virturally all humans have, such as cooperation, and you can find plenty of other animals that have it too.”