How We Make Up Our Minds

THE SECRET LIFE OF THE MIND
How Your Brain Thinks, Feels, and Decides
By Mariano Sigman
277 pp. Little, Brown. $27.

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Sigman’s book is as much about the workings of the brain as it is about the mind. His idiosyncratic tour — “a summary of neuroscience from the perspective of my own experience” — starts with the mind of the child, then moves to the brain circuits involved in decision making and alights on consciousness, before ending with learning and formal education. One interesting section describes what researchers can now do with brain imaging technology to make better guesses about what pictures people are watching, memories they are recalling, or even what dreams they are having. This is not just a neuroscientist’s parlor trick: It’s an essential way of figuring out the codes the brain uses to represent information and knowledge.

Sigman is one of many professors to become popularizers of their own fields, rather than leave the explanation and interpretation to science writers. His book is peppered with brief stories and artistic allusions, and it moves quickly from idea to idea, study to study. But I found myself wishing he more deeply described the experiments he mentions and some of the nuances about their proper interpretation. Readers of science books are interested in the concrete details of how it all gets done as well as what it really means.

STRANGE CONTAGION
Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves
By Lee Daniel Kravetz
267 pp. Harper Wave. $26.99.

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In 2009, five students at the same high school in Palo Alto, Calif., killed themselves within a six-month period, all by walking in front of commuter trains. In 2014, three more students killed themselves in a similar way. Suicide is a puzzle for our intuitive theories of human psychology: Why would we be designed, by natural selection or any other force, to be capable of deliberately ending our own existence? Kravetz argues that “social contagion” is the explanation for this series of disturbing events.

Research by sociologists, economists and psychologists has established that imitation and other mechanisms of social transmission cause norms, behaviors and moods to spread from person to person, without those people necessarily being aware of how they had been influenced or by whom. We are so susceptible to contagion that it must serve some positive…

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