Bruce Hood was born in Toronto, studied psychology at the University of Dundee and did his PhD at the University of Cambridge. He is Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol, and the author of Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. Bruce blogs at Bruce M. Hood. Below he writes about two scientific books that have influenced him.
Bruce Hood on The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and Descartes' Baby by Paul Bloom
Reading for me is a bit of a struggle, as I never seem to possess either the patience or the attention span to see a book through to the end. So finishing books for me is a rare event. What's worse is that even when I do find a really engaging book, then, as with a good joke, I thoroughly enjoy the content when I am in the midst of the experience but all too readily forget so much of the detail only a few weeks later. I can rarely give an accurate summary. For me, books tend to generate 'gists' that either stay with me or never get formed. Actually, I should not be so apologetic about my lack of recall. The British psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett pointed out that memory is an active process and that we do not really remember a lot of content but rather integrate stories into what we already know. In this way reading is an active process of assimilation.
So which books have made a lasting impression? (Note that the word 'impression' is apposite, as it really is an emotional dent that significant books make on me). I remember being moved by the curriculum classics Brave New World, 1984 and All Quiet on the Western Front. Or maybe it was the film versions that impressed me and I somehow misattributed their worth to the written versions.
However, one book that did change me and there has not been a film version, so I know that I have actually read it, is The Selfish Gene. Before Dawkins became the religion basher that has brought him to the brink of deity amongst followers, he wrote an extraordinary book that changed my life. Suddenly I no longer viewed myself in terms of having a free will but rather as the slave of biological imperatives that control my actions and thoughts. It felt liberating as I did not need to agonize over my decisions. I knew what natural selection was before reading The Selfish Gene, but somehow Dawkins' mastery of language and metaphor excited me to reappraise the role of genes in shaping who we are. I can truly say that the book was seminal in my mind and was the spur for me to pursue an academic career. But ask me what The Selfish Gene is about exactly and I would guess wildly and have to go back to look for the details.
Another book, I adored was written by my good friend and colleague Paul Bloom from Yale and entitled Descartes' Baby. When I read it, I was shocked as I had been trying to sell the idea for my own book, Supersense, and I thought that Paul had beaten me to the wire with Descartes' Baby before I had even a chance. Now this is one book that I do remember very well because Paul covers much of the same evidence from research on child development to explain why we become the weird adults that we are. At first I was crestfallen as I hurriedly turned the pages to discover more and more examples of findings that I wanted to tell the world about. However, I soon realized that there was room for another book. So reading Descartes' Baby changed my own plans for the book that would eventually become Supersense.
What I liked best about Descartes' Baby was the style of writing. The opening sentence of it is: 'Having sex with dead animals is disgusting.' With these words, I realized it was OK to write with humour and not worry too much about shocking the reader. This was because Paul was so widely regarded as an important player in academic psychology. If Paul could write like that, then so could I. Most importantly, we became good friends and began collaborating on some of the most interesting and fascinating questions I have considered in my career. Also, I don't think I have ever laughed so much as when I am with Paul. We are just two grown-up boys.