How We Decide--Jonah Lehrer

One of the few pleasures of traveling away from family is the fact that much reading can be done.  So on the plane flights to and from Chicago, I completed two books.  The first I've already reported on.  The second is for discussion here.

Jonah Lehrer is the keeper of The Frontal Cortex blog and the author of one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books Proust Was a Neuroscientist.  This book has joined the ranks of that and both Sway and Click, as an enjoyable, fascinating, and enlightening read. 

The title says it all--the book is about how different parts of the brain contribute to decision making and how we must allow them to do so.  It enters into the question of how to make extremely complex decisions and how to make simple ones--and it turns out that the means of making those decisions might be counter-intuitive.  Equally counter-intuitive to divided Western Man is Mr. Lehrer's reference to the emotions and emotional center as the brain's "super computer."  Indeed, he likens the intellectual capacity of even the most brilliant of people to a calculator,  perfectly capable of handling analysis of a limited set of data and arriving at the correct solution.  But for more complex investigation, we need to rely upon the trained sensibilities of our emotions.  To this end he briefly sites the magisterial and groundbreaking work of George Miller in "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two."

While the science is fascinating and the stories interesting and compelling, it seems important for one to keep a certain distance from the materialism that seems to drive it all and which, on some occasions give one pause in the reflection of the information Mr. Lehrer is placing before us.  For example, he notes that altruism is "hardwired" into the primate brain and "Thou shalt not kill" is a later codification for something we understand intuitively. The hardwiring consists of the fact that it feels good to act altruisitically--the brain responses to it in a soothing bath of feel-good chemicals.  The tone of this passage seems to call into question the validity of the revelation of the Ten Commandments--and that is perhaps overstepping the bounds of what research can tell us.  For even if the brain is hardwired to this end, one must contemplate the question as to why this might be.  One could argue evolution, but an equally valid argument could be made that hardwiring for "selfish geneism" would have better suited evolution.  That is, the elimination of competition is as valid an evolutionary end (perhaps more valid) than the preservation of society.  

So, while the arguments are interesting in what they do say, one must be aware of the inherent limits of what they can say.  This materialist-empiricist/religious tension seems to pervade much of Mr. Lehrer's work, and is would make sense that one dedicated to the chronicling of a scientific enterprise might lean heavily on the side of empiricism--but the reader must keep this in mind while perusing the arguments, lest one come to conclusions that do not strictly follow from the data.

All of that aside, the book is a delight.  It is compelling reading and its insights may help reintegrate the human being that the metaphysical poets saw as whole and the Enlightenment developers tore apart.  (Although Mr. Lehrer points out that the conflict in visions of the human person has been around at least since Plato  and probably since people have undertaken any sort of metacognition.)

Get it and read it.  It seems to be the harbinger of a new psychology and of a new understanding of HOW we are what we are in a physical and scientific sense.  Mr. Lehrer uses the data from science and the stories that he shares along the way to suggest some guidelines for decision making that might benefit each of us at different times.

Highly recommended *****


  1. Steven,

    Something to consider--

    One size does not fit all.

    A gene for altruism might be very useful for those species in which cooperation among the members of that species helps the survival of all. Look at the length of time needed to protect and nurture a human infant. Cooperation among humans seems not only important but absolutely necessary for both the individual and species survival. This seems true for many mammals and birds.

    In species where the newly born/hatched are on their own and are able to survive to some extent on their own, then fellow members of that species would be competitors and a "selfish" gene might be most useful.

    I think we need to look at this issue on a species-by-species basis rather than making a universal statement.

  2. If you're interested, Jonah Lehrer has an interview and a talk on CSPAN's video library. The Proust interview is short, but the "How We Decide" talk is pretty long...I have only started it and haven't had time to finish watching it yet.

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  4. Dear Fred,

    Thank you. I just want to be sure that I make it clear: the point in the review wasn't really about genetics and altruism, but more about the fact that an argument can be made either way as to whether altruism IN GENERAL is an evolutionary advantage and therefore something that would be reinforced physiologically (in evolutionary theory).

    But your point biologically is well-taken. Although, there are many long-nurtured young that are not necessarily social animals. And the question of genetic evolution into societies and social groupings is something that has no biologically causitive mechanism. It's a kind of speculative sociobiology that may have grounding in insect societies, but in the loose aggregates and clusters of human society seems, as I said before speculative.

    The issue though, as I pointed out, is that there is genetic/evolutionary advantage to either take. Why then do we receive a biochemical "reward" for altruistic behavior? Is it truly genetic--is it something we are trained to from earliest life? After all, are we not taught to share by caring parents and other guardian?

    Anyway, you get the point--it's an exceedingly complex and very "sticky" sort of argument that leads easily to circularity if one doesn't approach it with caution.

    As always, thank you for taking the time and making the effort to comment.

    Dear Dwight,

    Thank you. I will have to look those up. Mr. Lehrer is a writer whom I have come to respect as well as enjoy.



  5. Steven,

    As you suggest, it's a complicated issue. I limited my far too brief comments to the genetic possibilities or aspects because that was the focus of the book and your comments.

    That behavior can influence brain activity and even structure is accepted now even by the most dogmatic believer in hardwired behavior patterns, so I have no argument with the possibility that altruism can be learned behavior in humans.

    It does seem clear that the mechanism for receiving pleasurable feelings in humans is genetically determined. What isn't clear, at least to me anyway, is which of the various pleasure-giving activities is hardwired and which have become attached to the pleasure mechanism through learning or experience.

    I enjoy reading books. I'll bet there is an increase of endorphins running around in my system during and after reading, but is that hardwired or learned? In this case, my bet is that it's a learned response.


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