For everyone Book review: Out of Our Minds

Felipe Fernández-Armesto

While there are plenty of books picking apart how the brain – or the mind (what we might call its operating software) – works, there are few looking at how the ways we use our brains have changed over time. Or, at least, few as engaging as this comprehensive tome from British historian Fernández-Armesto.

As might be expected from a historian, the scope is far-reaching, mapping the birth of ideas across science, philosophy, politics, religion and culture. Using the evidence available, he traces the earliest ethics back to the symbols and values used by our cave-bound ancestors, which might bind a community together.

We see civilisations rise, read the words of the first celebrity philosophers, track the role of religions and empires in spreading enlightenment (or ignorance) and, finally, arrive in a modern era full of uncertainties. It’s not wholly a story of progress, arguing that we might have reached the end of a golden age of ideas in a homogenised, globalised world where machines do much of the mental gruntwork for us.

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