Daniel S. Levine's Explorations in Common Sense and Common Nonsense  observes human decision making, ethics, and social organization as illuminated by the scientific disciplines of neural network theory, neuroscience, experimental psychology, and dynamical systems theory.  It is a book whose aim is advocacy as well as research.  Its goal is to use an understanding of our brains and minds to better operationalize Aldous Huxley's admonition to "try to be a little kinder."  It wanders over examples from sociology, politics, economics, religion, literature, and many other fields but looks at all as examples of a few common themes.

The "common nonsense" of the book's title refers to widespread popular beliefs that are harmful to human welfare and artificially limit human potential. The "common sense" refers to other popular beliefs that promote positive growth and are largely supported by the emerging results of psychology and neuroscience. A few of the book's major conclusions are listed below, first in the form of "bumper sticker statements" that appear in the preface, then in the form of longer "bullets" that appear in the first chapter.

"Bumper Sticker Statements"

What you get is more than what you see
Don't bite my finger, look where I am pointing
People don't want to be evil
People don't want to be neurotic
Reason and emotion aren't opposites
Reason isn't superior to emotion
Improbability isn't impossibility
The majority of a group isn't all of it
All knowledge is interconnected
Everything is a dynamical system
Order may be good or bad
Disorder may be good or bad


  • Modern methods in brain science and neural network theory provide insights into why we humans don't always meet our potential. These insights also suggest how social institutions, therapy, education, et cetera might be structured to enhance human potential. As brain science develops further, its social applications will form a growth field. This doesn't mean the natural sciences will replace the social sciences or the helping professions. Nor will science replace folk psychology or the intuition ("common sense") of average people. Instead, science can be a partner with all these other pursuits in joint work toward social progress. At best, scientific insights can destroy the "cult of the expert" by bringing out the creative "scientist" in everybody!
  • Human nature is neither "good" nor "evil" in the senses that most people think of these words. The same person can have radically different and mutually inconsistent behaviors in different contexts. When two or more conflicting behavioral patterns coexist in the same adult, Darwinian natural selection isn't much help in choosing between them.
  • There is a standard for the best possible human functioning, often called self-actualization, which has some biological basis that is yet to be well understood. But human behavior doesn't always self-actualize or optimize potential.
  • The fact that we don't always act optimally should be a cause for hope, not despair. This is because it means that war, poverty, environmental pollution, and rigid dominance hierarchies are not the result of optimal functioning, so they can be improved on.
  • Common nonsense falls into one or more of a few repeating patterns. Some of our common nonsense beliefs can be characterized as promoting dominator relationships based on hierarchical rankings, as opposed to partnership relations based on equality and mutual respect. Others fall into a pattern of making false "either-or" distinctions (e.g., one can be socially responsible or pursue pleasure but not both). Still others result from confusing the average attributes of a group with the attributes of every individual in the group, or confusing the way someone acts most of the time with the way he or she acts all the time. Our common sense, creative responses to problems often come from seeing through appearances to the variability in each person or group. What you get is more than what you see!.
  • "What you get is more than what you see" leads to some norms for behavior. It suggests that we need to try to avoid judging people as incapable of doing something (whether it's being good parents or learning mathematics or anything else) just because they aren't currently doing it. It also suggests that a long-term perspective needs to replace a short-term one, whether in politics, economics, science, psychotherapy, or health care, for example. Attitudes we take on in any one of these spheres, whether helpful or harmful, tend to carry over into other spheres.

Chapters are in PDF Format. 

Table of Contents for 
Explorations in Common Sense and Common Nonsense
Daniel S. Levine

"Bumper Sticker Statements"


Chapter 1: Beliefs Matter!
Case 1: Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
    Case 2: Entrenched Social Systems
    Case 3: Judgment Under Uncertainty
    Irrationality and the Brain
    Brains, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Society
    "The Good I Will I Do Not..."
    The Brain and Human Nature

Chapter 2: Neural Networks: Not Just Clever Computers
Current Uses of Neural Networks in Neuroscience and Psychology
    The Microstructure of Cognition

Chapter 3: What Do People Really Want?
  What is Self-Actualization?
    The Hierarchy of Needs and the Drive Reduction Concept
    Hedonistic Neurons and Maximal Utility
    Drive Representations and Frontal Lobes
    Neurosis Versus Long-term Reinforcement
    Reason and Emotion Revisited

Chapter 4: Actuality Versus Optimality
    What Evolution Can and Can't Tell Us
    Multiple Stable States
    Power Inequalities
    War, and Excessive Fear of Danger
    Repression of Feelings
    Some Neural Prototypes of Nonoptimal Behavior
    Optimism or Pessimism?


Chapter 5: How We Make Categories and Constructs
Personal Constructs
    Probabilities and Certainties
    Tendencies Are Not Unbreakable
    Cortical Versus Limbic Categorizations?
    A Tentative Neurochemical Theory

Chapter 6: Remaining Open to Change
The Lessons of Coke
    Looking the Dragon in the Face
    Taming the Dragon
    The Psychology of Role Playing and Role Breaking
    Unfreezing Our Neural Networks

Chapter 7: Negotiating Cognitive Dissonance
   Levels of Mental Conflict Resolution
    Self-actualization as Optimal Cognition
    Global Versus Local and Part Versus Whole
    How Can Our Brains Meet More of Our Needs?
    Self-actualization and Information Processing
    Norepinephrine, Serotonin, and Pattern Classification
    Promoting Global Thinking

Chapter 8: Self-actualization as Creative Synthesis
Reason and Emotion
    Mysticism (or Religion) and Science
    Pragmatism and Idealism
    Selfishness and Altruism
    Playfulness and Seriousness
    "Masculinity" and "Femininity"
    A Duty For Our Neural Networks

Chapter 9: Therapy, for the Person and Society
Philosophical Ideals
    Social Experiments
    Aesthetic and Religious Experiments
    Implications for Psychotherapy
    Focusing on Health, Not Disease
    Building Healthy Work Places and Organizations
    Implications for Politics


Chapter 10: What You Get is More Than What You See
Nature and Nurture Revisited
    Add Disinhibition
    Prophecies of Doom
    What Sometimes Passes for Common Sense
    "There Are More Things in Heaven and Earth ..."
    An Attitude of Hope

Chapter 11: Brain Science for Humanity
Understanding Daily Life
    The Social Brain and the Frontal Lobes
    Participatory Democracy
    The Lessons of Dynamical Systems Theory
    Science Versus "Scientism"

Chapter 12: The Compassionate Revolution
Calhoun's Historical Schema
    Population, Environment, and the World Food Supply
    A New Equality of the Sexes
    Obligation Without Coercion
    Tolerance and Diversity
    Go Now in Peace


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