- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

My Recent Reading: 10 Interesting Books on How We Think and Learn

My current project is a deep dive into the science and philosophy of learning by doing. (Which, ironically, has me reading a lot of books!)

Since my last post sharing interesting books [1] was surprisingly well-received, I figured I’d share some more. Here are ten books I found thought-provoking:

1. Metaphors We Live [2] by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson

Listen to this article

Thinking is fundamentally metaphorical. Instead of reasoning about things directly, Lakoff and Johnson argue, we reason through analogy to more primitive experiences. Language is a conduit. Bigger numbers are higher up. The mind is a container. Some of these metaphors are so deeply ingrained in our thinking, that we fail to recognize that they’re even metaphorical.

There are two radical ideas resulting from this view. The first is the idea that all thought derives from our more fundamental experiences from having bodies and dealing with physical things. The second is that since we need analogies to reason, what is objectively true hinges upon this analogical choice. Totally objective truth, independent of the choice of a metaphorical system, is impossible.

I was largely persuaded, but not everyone agrees [3].

2. The Principles of Psychology [4] by William James

William James is considered by many to be the father of scientific psychology. His 1400-page text was the standard reference for decades. The paper edition was unwieldy, so I chose to listen to the unabridged Audible version [5], which came in at 47 hours.

Written over 130 years ago, Principles is an odd blend of surprisingly modern analyses and stranger fare. Detailed descriptions of localizing brain function are presented alongside cases debunking people being possessed by spirits.

The book is also an interesting guide into the metaphors that guide science. James frequently uses a “flow” metaphor of mentality, of circuits that flow and drain throughout the cerebrum.1 [6]Today, the computer metaphor dominates. Will the latter stick? Perhaps in another century and a half, our forebears will use a different metaphor for the mind that makes our computer analogy seem as dated as well.

3. The Nature of Expertise [7] edited by Micheline Chi, Robert Glaser and Marshall Farr

Chi is famous for her studies describing physics experts and novices. Her work shows that experts solve problems using principles (e.g., conservation of energy) while novices focus on superficial elements (e.g., does it contain a pulley?). This theory builds on work by Chase and Simon, who argue that expertise is the accumulation of many discrete patterns.

This model implies that expertise tends to be domain-specific and extensive experience is the primary way we gain skill.

There’s a good chapter by Anders Ericsson dissecting the impressive memory feats of a professional waiter. The waiter was able to remember complex orders quickly and largely error-free. Although his performance declined on non-restaurant memory tasks, it was surprisingly general. Ericsson chalks this up to the method the waiter used having a degree of generality.

I would argue that real-life practice also pushes for generality. Laboratory tasks and textbook problems often have an unusual degree of regularity which encourages less flexible skills to develop.

Another interesting chapter, by Eric Johnson, argues against expertise. While experts do better than novices in many domains of uncertainty, they perform worse than simple linear regression models. We’re overly swayed by unusual circumstances and ignore base rates [8].

4. Reality is Broken [9] by Jane McGonigal

Reality, McGonigal argues, is insufficiently motivating compared with games. To fix this we ought to make our everyday goals more game-like to inspire motivation.

I wasn’t convinced. While gamification may be alright for household chores or tedious tasks, I worry that it replaces the actual drive to do things. We need more meaningful work, hobbies and social relationships—not bullshit engagement tricks layered onto meaningless work.

The numerous examples of gamification mostly seem silly rather than threatening. However, the much more powerful “gamification” tools used to glue us to our screens and distort our politics are omitted. Thus, while the changes McGonigal suggests are mostly harmless, I think they harbinger a deeper illness in our society.

5. The Metaphysical Club [10] by Louis Menand

Pragmatism is a uniquely American philosophy. This book explores the lives of four of its most influential members: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. It explores the spectrum of American thought from the outbreak of the Civil War through the beginning of WW2.

Pragmatism argues that ideas are tools. Truth is defined by usefulness, not an exact matching to reality.

James tells a story of a group of campers arguing about a squirrel on a tree. As they run around the tree, the squirrel moves to the opposite side so they can’t see it. They debated whether they truly ran “around” the squirrel. James thought the debate was silly. “Around” could mean either a circle on the ground, in which case they had gone around, or in terms of a relative position compared to the squirrel, in which case they hadn’t. No practical issue depended on this definition, so it wasn’t a real question.

I like pragmatism as an overall attitude toward the biggest questions in life. But it may be ultimately self-defeating, if only because it doesn’t seem useful to collapse truth into mere usefulness. Still, the writing of James and Dewey is some of my favorite in philosophy for its humanism and lack of pretentiousness.

6. Fear and Courage [11] by S. J. Rachman

What is fear? What is courage? Applying lessons from clinical psychology, Rachman provides intriguing insights into these questions.

He argues that fear isn’t monolithic—instead, he argues that fear is a set of three loosely coupled components: physiological arousal, subjective feeling, and behavior. Exposure therapy works well, but we’re not entirely sure why. Courage is not fearlessness; it is the absence of fear behaviors (e.g., avoidance, freezing) in the presence of subjectively felt fear.

Beyond this theoretical work, I found his analysis of examples of genuine fear fascinating. Rachman discusses the Blitz in London (in which psychologists massively overpredicted the panic) to the conditions of courage in some of the most dangerous tasks imaginable (heavy bombers in the RAF, some of which had only a 10% survival rate).

My favorite quote: “One of the major weaknesses of all psychological theories is the assumption that people are highly vulnerable to threats and stress. The theories are designed for creatures more timorous than human beings.”

7. The Computational Brain [12] by Terrence Sejnowski and Patricia Churchland

If the brain is a computer, how does it compute? Sejnowski and Churchland argue that early attempts to understand mentality often avoided dealing with the actual “hardware.” Proposed psychological models assumed someone else would figure out the “implementation” in neural circuits.

But implementation isn’t so separable from function. The brain’s architecture—in which billions of neurons communicate across trillions of synapses, with highly constrained, dynamic connectivity—is not only a limit on plausible theories of the mind; it is also a powerful tool for understanding it.

Sejnowski and Churchland argue for a model that resembles the deep neural networks used in machine learning. If accurate, this makes the brain much more like a giant, sophisticated look-up table than has previously been thought.

8. Cognitive Training [13] edited by Tilo Strobach and Julia Karbach

Does brain training work? Mostly no.

This is the conclusion I gathered after reading this edited volume comparing many meta-analyses on the idea of cognitive training. The consistent finding: training reports some benefit for near transfer but little benefit for far transfer tasks.

However, the book itself was a jarring experience, with many researchers seemingly fighting against the conclusions of their own data.

My take is this: scientists like to devote their careers to studying something that works, not a dead-end. This biases the field in favor of optimism as the skeptics tend to work on different problems. Usually, mild successes are congratulated, while more typical failures are calls for more research and study.

My basic critique goes deeper than the data: how can a mental activity be so generally useful that improving it would influence the performance of tons of everyday tasks, yet be so under-practiced that a few minutes per day of specialized training is enough to make significant boosts?

9. Dewey’s Laboratory School [14] by Laurel Tanner

John Dewey’s book Democracy and Education made him one of the most prominent public intellectuals in America at the beginning of the 20th century. Before this, however, he set up a school to test his theories of philosophy in action.

Called the Laboratory School, Dewey’s model was for students to engage holistically with subjects integrated with real life. There were no separate classes for math or history. Instead, students were taught both through an ongoing project that simulated the historical development of textile production.

More hagiography than history, I found Tanner’s account to be overly rosy in places. Given that the Laboratory School was populated by children of his University of Chicago peers, lessons drawn from the school are probably not universal. Still, I admire the boldness of the experiment.

10. Mind and Society [15] by Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky argues that the processes of learning and development aren’t separate. By assisting children to perform tasks they can’t do on their own, we can spur them to advance to higher stages of ability and reasoning. While interesting in its own right, I was mostly drawn to this book because it plays a central role in many of the debates over how minds work.

During my reading, I’ve found two competing traditions. On one side we have the Cognitivists. These are people like Chi, Ericsson, Simon and Newell. They tend to work from the assumption that the mind is an information processing tool, with the goal of psychology being to figure out the function.

On the other side are the Constructivists. They tend to see all mentality as being embedded in larger social structures, communities and shared practices. Vygotsky’s work here is important since it establishes the importance of social factors in mental life, learning and development.

I’m often torn between the two camps. My mental model of how the mind works is more closely allied with the Cognitivists. Yet, I tend to agree that skills are often more local and context-bound than many assume. This puts me in a bit of an awkward position in reading evidence, since I find my own thinking doesn’t neatly fit into either tradition.

Some Thoughts on Doing Research

One of the challenges (and opportunities) of researching a big topic is just how many different views could plausibly relate. It’s easy to get comfortable with one set of results only to realize there’s an entire discipline that weighs in on the questions you ask.

The paradox of learning is that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t. Each answered question spawns myriad doubts. I’m about fifty books and a hundred papers into this project so far, and there’s still a lot to go.


  1. Some of this may simply be scientific error. The book was published around the time of Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s work which showed neurons to be discrete entities, not merely a continuous web of connections.