10.32, Wednesday 4 Aug 2004

I'm writing a book. Here's what I've been doing since May: Co-authoring together with my friend and cognitive neuroscientist-at-large Tom Stafford a book for the O'Reilly Hacks series (with our editor, the mighty Rael Dornfest):

Codenamed, Brain Hacks.

It's all about, well, let me dig out our original pitch. It's: 100 practical and understandable probes into the design quirks of the brain, concentrating on the sensory and motor functions and their coordination.

And this is the motivation: To get where it is, the brain has made some fascinating design decisions. The layering of systems has produced a complex environment, with automatic and controlled highly mixed. This development over biological time has introduced constraints. As has the architecture--it takes time for slow signals to make their way from one area to another. And there are computational difficulties too: How much of its capabilities can the brain afford to invoke when a sub-second response is required? The tricks used leave traces. There are holes in our visual field that we continually cover up. There are certain sensory inputs that grab our attention faster and more thoroughly than we'd expect.

You don't need to know all of neuroscience, cognitive psychology and so on to know how your brain works. I'm not a neuroscientist. I write, my undergraduate degree is in physics, I hack in my spare time, and I work in new media. But neuroscience has got to such a level now - with the imaging techniques in the last three or four years - that we can make focused probes into particular functions, and illustrate the traces that these design decisions have left (see where+how they are, and draw that up the stack towards conscious experience) and we can look at them one by one.

And so you can learn how your brain works. I'm not talking about a map or general mechanisms ("there are neurons which are connected blah") and I'm not talking about really high-level stuff ("this bit is active when you're motivated blah"). I'm talking about minute-by-minute stuff: This is why you scratch your face when somebody else does. This is what will grab your attention in the corner of your eye, and this is what won't. Why the status icons in the corner of your desktop should be black and white and not in colour. That's what Brain Hacks is about, letting you see how all that works, from a standing start.

There's so much I want to say right now. From what I've learned, and the way it's changed how I look at the world - I can now follow the way my attention gets attached to the internal and external world, anticipate what's going to cause subliminal behaviour, and induce it in other people (but don't tell them I've been doing that), oh and the philosophical implications too - to the process: our use of a wiki for research and organisation (the most successful usage I've seen), the pitch process, the nature of writing, writing under pressure, re-learning how to follow citation trails, balance opinions. That can all wait.

For the moment, this is just a note to say: This is why I've been working part-time at the BBC for the last few months, and I'm enormously pleased (a) it's happening, and (b) I can tell everyone. This is almost certainly the coolest project I have ever worked on.

Now if you'll just excuse me. GODDAMN THIS IS SO BLOODY BRILLIANT. Sorry, I've been wanting to say that for ages.

(Tom S has also posted about this. He is also going slightly mad, seeing the world through the fog of neuroscience.)

Update on 7 December 2004: The book is officially called Mind Hacks, has been released, and we have a Mind Hacks weblog too. What a journey!