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on May 15, 2009
How We Decide - Jonah Lehrer, 2009

After being blown away by his previous book, Proust Was A Neuroscientist, on the relationship between brain science and art, I snapped up Lehrer's next one. Its purpose is to demonstrate the relationship between brain science and the way we make decisions in our everyday world.

It points out early that the old dichotomy that we all know and our western tradition has believed for the past three millennia is in fact false. That tradition is that the brain is divided between reason and emotion and that from Plato on forward we have been told we have to pay attention to reason because emotion leads us of the rails and has to be cajoled and bullied back into place by reason.

Wrongo. The brain is a prediction machine and conscious and unconscious factors lead people to made decisions, sometimes favouring the speed and experience of intuition and on other occasions mulling over the facts.

In this context, Lehrer uses compelling real life situations to make his points. How Tom Brady passed into the 'future' to win the Superbowl; how the radar tech felt a returning jet blip was wrong and ordered it downed, less than a half mile from a battle ship he was not on - it was a missile; how the mind is averse to loss and that we invest money in the stock market for bad reasons; that superstar basketball players do not get on streaks of success; and so on.

Early on, Lehrer points out that a brain injury patient who has the connection between the subconscious and conscious centre (behind the right eyebrow) severed cannot make decisions because without emotional preferences consciousness has no way of determining which action to take. Then he gets into the dopamine system that makes us feel pleasure, but at the same time tells us when something is wrong (the blip being an enemy missile rather than one of us good guys in a fighter jet) by stimulating long slender spindle cells that go all over the brain so we get the jolt simultaneously. Interestingly enough these 'emotion' sensors are only found in higher primates, and humans have 40 times more than our closest monkey friends, pretty conclusive proof that our emotions are a highly flexible system for real time predictions with a mistake recognition loop for improving our expectations for the life we move into.

Intelligent intuition is the result of deliberate practice. That is the conclusion of one of the best chess, backgammon and poker players in the world, Bill Robertie. If you want to improve, review your mistakes. Lehrer even tells you how to stop spending so much on so many credit cards, based on brain science of the small 'insula' in the brain that recognizes negative feelings - it's far harder to hand across cash than plastic. Got suckered in the 'sub-prime' mortgage debacle? There's a brain region for that, too. And Herman Palmer, a New York debt counselor (part of the every day use of this book) says, ' only the fine print," on credit card come-ons.

On mulling the facts, in a crisis, Chapter 4: The Uses of Reason has a stellar section in it about two pilots trying to save their DC-10 (no not because of the faulty baggage door that put the company out of business) from crashing, pages 120 - 132. This tells you how the brain works through a problem when terrified, and coming to a counterintuitive conclusion that has never existed before when 500 lives, most importantly your own, is at stake.

Chapter 5: Choking on Thought, is about how when we think over something we know well, that we inhibit our conscious attention and we choke. This is intended to further develop the intuition, subconscious part of decision making. For my tastes, this was a tad repetitive, and perhaps too many scientific studies to make the same point several times. But, interesting stories, nonetheless, for example, it has been conclusively shown that MRI examinations for lower back pain have resulted in more than 50% more 'invasive' incorrect outcomes from doctors because our conscious centre in the right prefrontal area can only handle, get this, seven different factors before its ability to make decisions goes down the tube and we make worse decisions. And you thought the brain worked like a computer. Wrong.

Chapter 6 is about how we make ethical discriminations. Kant, Descartes and lawyers won't be happy to know it doesn't take a lot of rational thought to make moral decisions. It turns out that we are hardwired to do so. We get the feeling, and then the rational mind makes up reasons to explain the feeling. This is because mammals need the warm feeling of mothers and others from the first moment to turn out okay. Our minds innately sympathize with others, empathize, then make altruistic decisions based on, actually, not wanting to see others suffer. We have active emotional reactions from our amygdyla, mirror cells that key in on others expressions so we experience the feeling, then our fusiform area recognizes particular people, and unlike psychopaths who do not feel, an amygdyla problem, or autists who cannot recognize the facial features that mean certain emotions and we want innately are wired to theorize that others are like us. These areas make us imbue others with emotion. It's not about rational thought at all; that comes later in the justification stage. Interestingly, if we are deprived of others our abilities to empathize and take actions to help others go way down, so think about various types of child abuse that change people when they most need those various centres to be turned on, nurtured and grown. Fascinating chapter. Oh, and all you parents who have been deprived of your child or lost a child feel intense pain because of simple hormones that also regulate water level in the body - vasopressin and oxytocin. Such a loss wipes most people out for the rest of their lives.

The collected wisdom of How We Decide comes on pages 244 - 250, but the book is much more fascinating than the summary. And The Coda puts neatly the mesh between the experience (emotion) and reasoning (conscious thought) components of our thoughts. Both have their specialties and both are required all day long every day.

Lehrer takes my vote as the science writer who has best thought through the science - their papers often written with tentative conclusions, in gibberish text and with the need to pass peer judgment, demonstrate repeatable experiments and with an overladen Latin weight - and translated it into incisive, sparkling, accessible, understandable and compelling reading for the human being who is interested in investigating how things work in their heads. And it passes the short attention spam test: the book ends in less than 250 pages. As previously mentioned, I am working on a book: The Brains of Poets (, and would always like more science and more art. This book will appeal to a broader audience.
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on April 22, 2010
As others have noted, this book is quite good at explaining not only "how we decide," but more important, how we decide wisely or foolishly. I was particularly intrigued to discover that, over time, I'd fallen into precisely the sort of shopping behavior that studies have shown are most likely to lead to long-term satisfaction. I ponder all the factors, and then, without making a decision, browse elsewhere in the store for a few minutes. After that pause to let my subconscious mull over the decision, I almost alway reach a decision I like.

The book's chief failing is that the author doesn't pull everything together into a "How we should decide" summary. For me, all the interesting bits and pieces never seemed to come together. Sometimes he cites studies showing that following reason is the best option. Other times the research suggested that it was best to go with gut instinct. I realize that life is complex and research often contradictory, but a bit more summation would have been helpful.

--Michael W. Perry, Untangling Tolkien: A Chronology and Commentary for The Lord of the Rings
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on November 1, 2010
Haven't finished reading it yet(3/4) but the situation used as examples for how the work do that it does are very interesting to say the least.
You can really feel the complexity behind each tough or decisions and the explanations are really good and informative.
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on February 5, 2012
This book is well written and easy to understand. Complicated science of the activity of the brain and what affects our brain activity is presented in lay terminology and supported by interesting stories and examples.
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