Books about the processes of thinking often fall into two broad categories. They are either "pop science," easy-to-digest and compulsively readable, or overflowing with research and theory. Matthew Crawford's new book falls more into the latter category — he doesn't simplify anything — but it is also written in a way that pulls you in and rewards your careful attention.
"The World Beyond Your Head" draws on exploring the interactions, the cause-and-effect, between our thoughts and the world we inhabit.
He has an analogy: Hard-core motorcycle enthusiasts speak to the benefits of knowing a bike completely — not just how to ride it, but how the different parts work together, the order in fixing things, the different levels of utter elation that come from that interaction with the machine on every level. Crawford would like us to think of our brains in a similar way.
For example, Crawford illustrates "nonconceptual mental content" in the following way. When you're riding your bicycle down the road with the sun at your back, and you can see your shadow cast out in front of you, you're likely in a relatively relaxed mind-set. If you can see your shadow, you can see well around you, with the sun shining from behind.
That shadow should trigger an alarm, though — because it means anyone crossing your path will have a difficult time seeing you, with the sun shining right into their eyes. In other words, a situation might not feel dangerous, but if you can call up a bit of knowledge about cause and effect, you can shift your attention up a notch.
Crawford also touches on the importance of feedback after engaging in high-risk activities, such as fighting a fire. A close-knit crew will talk about the shifting levels of danger after putting out a fire, and this becomes material that will inform future risk-assessing.
The input from a trusted colleague, in other words, shifts the understanding of "what just happened," which can help you make a safe decision the next time.
If there's a complaint to be made, it's that Crawford's writing may lean too heavily on his clearly vast intellect. The book isn't impenetrable, but neither is it the sort of read you dip a toe into when you have a free minute. Still, anyone with an interest in perception and meaning will find this book an essential and fascinating read.
Matthew Tiffany is a writer and psychotherapist. http://condalmo.com