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Praise for Making up the Mind
“Chris Frith is well known for his extremely clear thinking on very complex psychological matters, such as agency, social intelligence, and the
minds of people with autism and schizophrenia. And it is precisely such
questions, along with the understanding of how we perceive, act, choose,
remember, and feel, which are now being revolutionized by brain imaging.
In Making up the Mind, he brings all this together in a most accessible
and engaging way.”
Oliver Sacks, MD
“Making up the Mind is a fascinating guided tour through the elusive
interface between mind and brain written by a pioneer in the field. The
author’s obvious passion for the subject shines through every page.”
V.S. Ramachandran, MD
“I soon made up my mind that this is an excellent, most readable and
stimulating book. The author is a distinguished neuroscientist working
especially on brain imaging.”
R.L. Gregory, University of Bristol
“Chris Frith, one of the pioneers in applying brain imaging to study
mental processes, has written a brilliant introduction to the biology of
mental processes for the general reader. This superb book describes how
we recreate in our brains a representation of the external world. Clearly
and beautifully written, this book is for all who want to learn about
how the brain gives rise to the mental phenomenon of our lives. A must
Eric R. Kandel, Nobel Laureate
“Important and surprising. The brain will never seem the same again.”
Lewis Wolpert, University College London
Making up the Mind
How the Brain Creates our Mental World
© 2007 by Chris D. Frith
350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148-5020, USA
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK
550 Swanston Street, Carlton, Victoria 3053, Australia
The right of Chris D. Frith to be identified as the Author of this Work
has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a
retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, except as permitted by the
UK Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988, without the prior permission
of the publisher.
First published 2007 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Frith, Christopher D.
Making up the mind : how the brain creates our mental world / Chris Frith.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978–1–4051–3694–5 (hardcover : alk. paper)—
ISBN 978–1–4051–6022–3 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Brain—Popular works.
2. Human behavior—Physiological aspects. 3. Neuropsychiatry—Popular
works. 4. Neuropsychology—Popular works. I. Title.
A catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Set in 10/13pt Galliard
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Printed and bound in Singapore
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The publisher’s policy is to use permanent paper from mills that operate a
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processed using acid-free and elementary chlorine-free practices. Furthermore,
the publisher ensures that the text paper and cover board used have met
acceptable environmental accreditation standards.
For further information on
Blackwell Publishing, visit our website:
List of Abbreviations
Prologue: Real Scientists Don’t Study the Mind
The Psychologist’s Fear of the Party
Hard Science and Soft Science
Hard Science – Objective; Soft Science – Subjective
Can Big Science Save Soft Science?
Measuring Mental Activity
How Can the Mental Emerge from the Physical?
I Can Read Your Mind
How the Brain Creates the World
Seeing through the Brain’s Illusions
Clues from a Damaged Brain
Sensing the Physical World
The Mind and the Brain
When the Brain Doesn’t Know
When the Brain Knows, But Doesn’t Tell
When the Brain Tells Lies
How Brain Activity Creates False Knowledge
How to Make Your Brain Lie to You
Checking the Reality of Our Experiences
How Do We Know What’s Real?
What a Normal Brain Tells Us about the World
Illusions of Awareness
Our Secretive Brain
Our Distorting Brain
Our Creative Brain
What the Brain Tells Us about Our Bodies
Where’s the Border?
We Don’t Know What We Are Doing
Who’s in Control?
My Brain Can Act Perfectly Well without Me
Phantoms in the Brain
There’s Nothing Wrong with Me
Who’s Doing It?
Where Is the “You”?
How the Brain Does It
Getting Ahead by Prediction
Patterns of Reward and Punishment
How the Brain Embeds Us in the World and Then Hides Us
The Feeling of Being in Control
When the System Fails
The Invisible Actor at the Center of the World
Our Perception of the World Is a Fantasy That
Coincides with Reality
Our Brain Creates an Effortless Perception of the
The Information Revolution
What Can Clever Machines Really Do?
A Problem with Information Theory
The Reverend Thomas Bayes
The Ideal Bayesian Observer
How a Bayesian Brain Can Make Models of the World
Is There a Rhinoceros in the Room?
Where Does Prior Knowledge Come From?
How Action Tells Us about the World
My Perception Is Not of the World, But of My Brain’s
Model of the World
Color Is in the Brain, Not in the World
Perception Is a Fantasy That Coincides with Reality
We Are Not the Slaves of Our Senses
So How Do We Know What’s Real?
Imagination Is Extremely Boring
How Brains Model Minds
Biological Motion: The Way Living Things Move
How Movements Can Reveal Intentions
Imitation: Perceiving the Goals of Others
Humans and Robots
The Experience of Agency
The Problem with Privileged Access
Illusions of Agency
Hallucinating Other Agents
Culture and the Brain
Sharing Minds – How the Brain Creates Culture
The Problem with Translation
Meanings and Goals
Solving the Inverse Problem
Prior Knowledge and Prejudice
What Will He Do Next?
Other People Are Contagious
Communication Is More Than Just Speaking
Teaching Is Not Just a Demonstration To Be Imitated
Closing the Loop
Fork Handles: The Two Ronnies Close the Loop (Eventually)
Fully Closing the Loop
Knowledge Can Be Shared
Knowledge Is Power
Epilogue: Me and My Brain
Chris Frith and I
Searching for the Will in the Brain
Where Is the Top in Top-Down Control?
This Book Is Not About Consciousness
Why Are People So Nice (as Long as They Are Treated Fairly)?
Even an Illusion Has Responsibilities
Illustrations and Text Credits
blood oxygenation level dependent
computerized axial tomography
fusiform face area
functional magnetic resonance imaging
magnetic resonance imaging
positron emission tomography
parahippocampal place area
rapid eye movement
Inside my head there is an amazing labor-saving device. Better even than
a dishwasher or a calculator, my brain releases me from the dull, repetitive task of recognizing the things in the world around me, and even
saves me from needing to think about how to control my movements.
I can concentrate on the important things in life: making friends and
sharing ideas. But, of course, my brain doesn’t just save me from tedious
chores. My brain creates the “me” that is released into the social world.
Moreover, it is my brain that enables me to share my mental life with
my friends and thereby allows us to create something bigger than any of
us are capable of on our own. This book describes how the brain makes
My work on the mind and the brain has been possible through funding
from the Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust. The MRC
enabled my work on the neuropsychology of schizophrenia through its
support of Tim Crow’s psychiatry unit in the Clinical Research Centre
at Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow, Middlesex. At that time we
could only make indirect inferences about relationships between the
mind and the brain, but this all changed in the 1980s with the development of brain scanners. The Wellcome Trust enabled Richard Frackowiak
to create the Functional Imaging Laboratory and supported my investigations there into the neural correlates of consciousness and social
interactions. The study of the mind and the brain cuts across traditional
disciplines, from anatomy and computational neurobiology to philosophy
and anthropology. I have been fortunate that I have always worked in
multidisciplinary – and multinational – groups.
I have benefited greatly from my interactions with my colleagues and
friends at University College London, in particular Ray Dolan, Dick
Passingham, Daniel Wolpert, Tim Shallice, Jon Driver, Paul Burgess, and
Patrick Haggard. At the early stages of this book I had many fruitful
discussions on the brain and the mind with my friends at Aarhus, Jakob
Hohwy and Andreas Roepstorff, and at Salzburg, Josef Perner and Heinz
Wimmer. Martin Frith and John Law have argued with me about many
of the topics covered in this book for as long as I can remember. Eve
Johnstone and Sean Spence generously gave me expert advice on psychiatric phenomena and their significance for brain science.
Perhaps the most important impetus for writing this book came
from my weekly discussions with the breakfast group, past and present.
Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Davina Bristow, Thierry Chaminade, Jenny Coull,
Andrew Duggins, Chloë Farrer, Helen Gallagher, Tony Jack, James Kilner,
Hakwan Lau, Emiliano Macaluso, Eleanor Maguire, Pierre Maquet, Jen
Marchant, Dean Mobbs, Mathias Pessiglione, Chiara Portas, Geraint Rees,
Johannes Schultz, Sukhi Shergill, and Tania Singer all have helped to
shape this book. I am deeply grateful to them.
Karl Friston and Richard Gregory read sections of the book and have
given me much help and useful advice. I am grateful to Paul Fletcher for
his encouragement at an early stage to create the Professor of English
and the other characters who argue with the narrator.
Philip Carpenter went well beyond the call of duty to provide incisive
Most of all I am grateful to those who read all the chapters and
provided detailed comments. Shaun Gallagher and two anonymous readers made many useful suggestions. Rosalind Ridley caused me to think
more carefully about my claims and to be more precise in my terminology. Alex Frith helped me to eliminate jargon and failures of continuity.
Uta Frith was closely involved in all stages of the development of the
project. Without her example and guidance this book would not exist.
Prologue: Real Scientists
Don’t Study the Mind
The Psychologist’s Fear of the Party
Just like any other tribe, scientists have a hierarchy. Psychologists are
somewhere near the bottom. I discovered this in my ﬁrst year at university, where I was studying natural sciences. It was announced that, for
the ﬁrst time, students would be able to study psychology in part 1 of the
natural sciences tripos. I went eagerly to my college tutor to ask him if he
knew anything about this new possibility. “Yes,” he replied. “But I didn’t
think any of my students would be crass enough to want to study psychology.” He was a physicist.
Possibly because I was not entirely sure what “crass” meant, I was
undeterred by this remark. I switched from physics to psychology. I have
continued to study psychology ever since, but I have never forgotten
about my place in the hierarchy. Inevitably the question will come up at
academic parties, “so what do you do?” and I think twice about replying,
“I’m a psychologist.”
Of course, much has changed in psychology over the last 30 years.
We have borrowed many skills and concepts from other disciplines. We
study the brain as well as behavior. We use computers extensively to
analyze our data and to provide metaphors for how the mind works.1
My university identity badge doesn’t say “Psychologist,” but “Cognitive
“So what do you do?” someone asks. I think she’s the new Head of
Physics. Unfortunately the reply, “I’m a cognitive neuroscientist” to the
I have to admit that there are a few diehards who deny that the study of the brain or of
computers can tell us anything about how the mind works.
the human brain
a slice through the brain
gray matter (nerve cells)
ventricles (fluid-filled spaces)
white matter (connecting fibers)
Figure p.1 Whole brain and post-mortem slice
The human brain seen from the side (top). The arrow indicates where this has been sliced to
reveal the lower picture. The brain’s outermost layer (the cortex) consists of gray matter and
is heavily folded in order to fit a large surface area into a small volume. The cortex contains
about 10 billion nerve cells.
Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison Brain Collection 69-314, http://www.brainmuseum.org.
Images and specimens funded by the National Science Foundation, as well as by the National
Institute of Health.
question simply delays matters. After I have tried to explain what I
actually do, she says, “Ah, you’re a psychologist!” with that characteristic
look which I translate to mean, “Wouldn’t you rather be doing real
The Professor of English joins the conversation and starts talking
about psychoanalysis. One of her new girls is “having difﬁculty accepting
Freud.” I don’t want to spoil my drinking time by proposing that Freud
was a story-teller whose speculations about the human mind were largely
A few years ago the editor of the British Journal of Psychiatry, no
doubt in error, asked me to assess a Freudian paper. I was immediately
struck by a subtle difference from the papers I usually assess. As in any
scientiﬁc paper, there were lots of “references.” “References” refer to
papers already published on the same topic. We make these references
partly to acknowledge the work of our predecessors, but mainly to support the claims we make in our own paper. “Don’t just take my word
for it. You will ﬁnd my methods fully justiﬁed in Box & Cox (1964).”2
But no attempt was made to support the evidence in the Freudian paper.
The references were not about the evidence. They were about the ideas.
Using these references you could trace the development of these ideas
through the various followers of Freud back to the original words of the
master himself. No evidence was presented as to whether the ideas of
the master were right.
“Freud may have had a big inﬂuence on literary criticism,” I say to the
Professor of English, “but he was no scientist. He wasn’t interested in
evidence. I study psychology scientiﬁcally.”
“So,” she replies, “you use the monster of mechanical reason to kill off
From both sides of the cultural divide I get the same response,
“Scientists can’t study the mind.” So what’s the problem?
Hard Science and Soft Science
In the dominance hierarchy of science, the top sciences are “hard” while
those at the bottom are “soft.” “Hard” doesn’t mean that the science is
more difﬁcult. “Hard” relates to the subject matter of the science and
the sort of measurements that can be made. Hard things like diamonds
have deﬁnite edges that can be measured precisely. Soft things like ice
creams have edges that are ill deﬁned and may vary from one measurement to the next. The hard sciences, such as physics and chemistry, study
tangible things that can be measured very precisely. For example, the
speed of light (in a vacuum) is exactly 299,792,458 meters per second.
An atom of iron is 55.405 times heavier than an atom of hydrogen.
These numbers are very important. From t