With regard to neuroscience, I am the among non-scholars who have a keen interest in what the brain and mind are and how they function, and am especially interested in how decisions are made. In recent years, I have read a variety of books that have helped me to increase my knowledge in these specific areas. They include William Calvin's How Brains Think: Evolving Intelligence, Then And Now, Gerald Edelman's Bright Air, Brilliant Fire: On The Matter Of The Mind, Guy Claxton's Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future, Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, and most recently, Torkel Klingberg's The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory. I am grateful to these and other volumes for increasing my understanding of the decision-making process while realizing that is still so much more that I need to know. Hence my interest in Jonah Lehrer's book, How We Decide.
In the Introduction after sharing an experience aboard a simulated flight landing at Tokyo Narita International Airport, Lehrer observes: "In the end, the difference between landing my plane in one piece and my dying in a fiery crash came down to a single decision made in the panicked moments after the engine fire...This book is about how we make decisions. It's about airline pilots, NFL quarterbacks, television directors, poker players, professional investors, and serial killers...[Ever since the ancient Greeks, assumptions about decision making have revolved around a single theme: humans are ration.] There's only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: It's not how the brain works...We can look inside the brain and see how humans think: the black box has been broken open. It turns out we weren't designed to be rational creatures...Whenever someone makes a decision, the brain is awash in feeling, driven by its inexplicable passions. Even when a person tries to be reasonable and restrained, these emotional impulses secretly influence judgment...Knowing how the mind [i.e. `a powerful biological machine'] works is useful knowledge, since it shows us how to get the most out of the machine. But the brain doesn't exist in a vacuum; all decisions are made in the context of the real world."
Then in the Coda, Lehrer re-visits the approach into the Tokyo airport that, we now realize, serves as the central metaphor in his book. "When the onboard computers and pilots properly interact, it's an ideal model for decision-making. The rational brain (the pilot) and the emotional brain (the cockpit computers) exist in perfect equilibrium, each system focusing on those areas in which it has a comparative advantage. The reason planes are so safe, areas in which it has a competitive advantage. The reason planes are so safe, even though both the pilot and the autopilot are fallible, is that both systems are constantly working to correct each other. Mistakes are fixed before they spiral out of control." The safe landing of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River on January 15th offers a more recent example of what Lehrer calls "perfect equilibrium" between Captain Chesley ("Sully") Sullenberger and the computers aboard the Airbus A320.
There are many valuable insights within Lehrer's narrative. Here are several that caught my eye, albeit quoted out of context.
"The process of thinking requires feeling, for feelings are what let us understand all the information that we can't directly comprehend. Reason without emotion is impotent." (Page 26)
"Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process." (Page 54)
"The ability to supervise itself, to exercise authority over its own decision-making process, is one of the most mysterious talents of the human brain. Such a mental maneuver is known as executive control, since thoughts are directed from the tip down, like a CEO issuing orders." (Page 116)
"As it happens, some of our most important decisions are about how to treat other people. The human being is a social animal, endowed with a brain that shapes social behavior. By understanding how the brain makes these decisions, we can gain insight into one of the most unique aspects of human nature: morality." (Page 166) Lehrer devotes all of Chapter 6, The Mortal Mind, to this important "aspect." For
"At its core, moral decision-making is about sympathy. We abhor violence because we know violence hurts. We treat others fairly because we know what it feels like to be treated unfairly. We reject suffering because we can imagine what it's like to suffer. Our minds naturally bind us together, so we can't help but follow the advice of Luke: `And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise." (Page 180)
Actually, I highlighted dozens of other passages but this review is already longer than I originally intended so I will quote no others. Because I think so highly of this book, I wanted to allow Lehrer sufficient opportunity to share at least a few of his thoughts with those who read this review. Credit him with a brilliant achievement: Enabling his readers to make better decisions by helping them to "see" themselves as they really are by carefully examining that is inside the "black box of the human brain." Only by doing so can we "honestly assess our flaws and talents, our strengths and shortcomings. For the first time [Lehrer claims], such a vision is possible. We finally have tools that can piece the mystery of the mind, revealing the intricate machinery that shapes our behavior. Now we need to put this knowledge."
I am unqualified to comment on Jonah Lehrer's claim that what he offers enables the aforementioned "vision" for the first time. However, he has certainly increased both my awareness and my understanding of what may be in my own "black box."