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Book Review: "Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain"

by Don Chiasson

O’Reilly Media is well known for publishing books, particularly on open source software. The company has published a number of books in a popular “Hacks” series, such as “Google Hacks”, “Mac OS X Hacks”, “Linux Server Hacks” and others, a total of about 50 titles. I have “Online Investing Hacks: 100 Industrial-Strength Tools & Tips” and found it useful. As you might expect, there is a Hacks web page at The formula for the books is to have 100 hacks (or tips) divided by topic into several chapters.

“Mind Hacks” is different in the O’Reilly stable in that it is not computer related. The back cover has the key word Psychology. The Ottawa Public Library has the book and the subjects it is listed under include Brain; Thought and thinking; Visual perception; Attention; and others. No mention of computers.

The ten chapters of Mind Hacks give an idea of the span of material: Inside the Brain; Seeing; Attention; Hearing and Language; Integrating; Moving; Reasoning; Togetherness; Remembering; and Other People. There are 100 hacks, so each chapter covers about ten hacks or topics. Omitting index, foreword, and so on the book has 344 pages, so each hack is just under three and a half pages. Typically, each hack is structured to include a summary, “In Action”, “How it Works” and “End Note.”

The book is well organized, with interesting topics. Each topic essentially stands alone, so it is difficult to give a broad-brush review of the book or discuss continuity. Discussing each chapter, let alone each hack goes beyond a short review such as this. Each hack covered a particular topic well: intelligent and not trivial while avoiding jargon or pretentiousness.

What did I like? Chapter Seven, “Reasoning Hacks 70 – 74” was my favourite part of the book. These were indeed hints on thinking, particularly numbers. Hack 70 notes that our brains haven’t evolved to think about numbers and that funny things happen to numbers as they go into our heads. Hack 71 points out how it is better to think about frequency of occurrences rather than about probabilities.

Hack 87 talks about using context to improve memory. Then there is Hack 92, “Make the caffeine habit taste good.” “Caffeine chemically hacks the brain’s reward system, boosting the value we give not only to the morning cuppa, but also to everything associated with it.” In other words, the context of your coffee or tea is important to the enjoyment.

What didn’t I like? I found Chapter Two, “Seeing” not as compelling as it could have been. To my mind, optical illusions provide amusement while at the same time demonstrating vagaries of how our vision works. The examples provided were not as good as they should have been.

In spite of the subtitle, “Tips & Tools for Using your Brain” I did not think the book was aimed at improving the reader’s brainpower. It is not a manual for how to increase your memory or improve your mathematics, though this could happen by understanding how your brain does work. Though the book covers a number of topics well, it is not comprehensive as it chooses interesting micro topics rather than a macro view. That statement is not a criticism but rather a description of the philosophy of the book.

Is “Mind Hacks” a good book? Definitely yes. It is not a book for serious study, but it contains a lot of interesting information. Because each hack stands alone (though there is some cross-referencing), it is a good book to graze allowing you to read a few pages then lay it aside and pick it up later, perhaps reading a different topic. Traveling or going to the cottage? Buy or borrow a copy of “Mind hacks.” You will relax and increase your knowledge.

Mind Hacks Bottom Line:

“Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain”
Tom Stafford and Matt Webb
Published by O’Reilly Books (2005)
394 pp. Price: $36.95
Dimensions: 23cm by 16cm by 2.3cm.

For an OPCUG discount on this and other O'Reilly books, visit:


Originally published: November, 2005

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