Why We Do What We Do

I very much enjoyed Jonah Lehrer's book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, so when I saw How We Decide in the Library, I thought it was a lead-in and picked it up.  Much to my surprise and pleasure it is a more recent books, so I don't have a long list of back-reading in the Lehrer Canon.  The introduction of this book is promising.

From How We Decide
Jonah Lehrer

But this doesn’t mean that our brains come preprogrammed for good decision-making. Despite the claims of many self-help books, intuition isn’t a miraculous cure-all. Sometimes feelings can lead us astray and cause us to make all sorts of predictable mistakes. The human brain has a big cortex for a reason.

The simple truth of the matter is that making good decisions requires us to use both sides of the mind. For too long, we’ve treated human nature as an either/or situation. We are either rational or irrational. We either rely on statistics or trust our gut instincts. There’s Apollonian logic versus Dionysian feeling; the id against the ego; the reptilian brain fighting the frontal lobes.

Not only are these dichotomies false, they’re destructive. There is no universal solution to the problem of decision-making. The real world is just too complex. As a result, natural selection endowed us with a brain that is enthusiastically pluralist. Sometimes we need to reason through our options and carefully analyze the possibilities. And sometimes we need to listen to our emotions.  The secret is knowing when to use these different styles of thought. We always need to be thinking about how we think.  (p. xvi)

But the brain doesn’t exist in a vacuum; all decisions are made in the context of the real world. Herbert Simon, the Novel Prize-winning psychologist, famously compared the human mind to a pair of scissors. One blade was the brain, he said, while the other blade was the specific environment in which the brain was operating.

If you want to understand the function of the scissors, then you have to look at both blades simultaneously. To that end, we are going to venture out of the lab and into the real world so that we can see the scissors at work. I’ll show you how the fluctuations of a few dopamine neurons saves a battleship during the Gulf War, and how the fevered activity of a single brain region led to the subprime housing bubble.  (p. xvii)

I'll keep you posted on how it goes.  But I anticipate that it will be most enjoyable.


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