I am reading: How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer

by Rosa Say on March 3, 2012

As of this writing, it’s only $2.99 on Kindle, and your experiences are like the blade of a comprehension slicing pair of scissors (more on that in a moment).

I’ve been batching the weave-able reading I’ve had on my To-Read list about the brain, figuring that each book would reinforce my learning retention with the others, and help me learn-through my questions:

  1. The book I started with (not exactly about the brain, but related to it via our ideas): Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Berlin Johnson: Review here, on Talking Story
  2. Second was Brain Rules by John Medina (very short review on GoodReads, for now.)
  3. How We Decide is my third. There is a short-but-telling interview with the author on the Amazon page which includes this bit; a memorable analogy:

“Herbert Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, famously compared our mind to a pair of scissors. One blade, he said, represented the brain. The other blade was the specific environment in which our brain was operating. If you want to understand the function of scissors, Simon said, then you have to look at both blades simultaneously. What I wanted to do in How We Decide was venture out of the lab and into the real world so that I could see the scissors at work.”

I decided to post this earlier than I usually do (as full book review), just in case you want to read along with me: The price is certainly right! (You don’t need the Kindle device itself; you can download it from the Kindle page to your computer.)

I’m just 15% through it, about to start Chapter 3, Fooled by a Feeling, and so far am liking it quite a bit. Lehrer has a very easy-to-read writing style.

Rosa’s Highlights

As a bit of a mini-reader for your own weaving possibilities, here are the highlights I’ve done in the book so far, thanks to the copy-ease of my Kindle account: (Michael Hyatt wrote up a good how-to here: How to get your Kindle Highlights into Evernote.)

If you decide to read along with me, do add your own observations in the comments — we can talk story about them :)

How We Decide: Introduction

From the perspective of the brain, there’s a thin line between a good decision and a bad decision, between trying to descend and trying to gain altitude. This book is about that line. ~ Read more at location 84

Ever since the ancient Greeks, these assumptions have revolved around a single theme: humans are rational. When we make decisions, we are supposed to consciously analyze the alternatives and carefully weigh the pros and cons. In other words, we are deliberate and logical creatures. This simple idea underlies the philosophy of Plato and Descartes; it forms the foundation of modern economics; it drove decades of research in cognitive science. Over time, our rationality came to define us. It was, simply put, what made us human. There’s only one problem with this assumption of human rationality: it’s wrong. It’s not how the brain works. Look, for example, at my decisions in the cockpit. They were made in the heat of the moment, a visceral reaction to difficult events. ~ Read more at location 89

It turns out that we weren’t designed to be rational creatures. Instead, the mind is composed of a messy network of different areas, many of which are involved with the production of emotion. 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. When I was in the cockpit desperately trying to figure out how to save my life—and the lives of thousands of Japanese suburbanites—these emotions drove the patterns of mental activity that made me crash and helped me land. But this doesn’t mean that our brains come preprogrammed for good decision-making. ~ Read more at location 98

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. ~ Read more at location 108

The mind inspires many myths—such as the fiction of pure rationality—but it’s really just a powerful biological machine, complete with limitations and imperfections. Knowing how the 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. ~ Read more at location 120

The goal of this book is to answer two questions that are of interest to just about everybody, from corporate CEOs to academic philosophers, from economists to airline pilots: How does the human mind make decisions? And how can we make those decisions better? ~ Read more at location 131

Chapter 1. The Quarterback in the Pocket

The problem with seeing the mind as a computer is that computers don’t have feelings. Because emotions couldn’t be reduced to bits of information or the logical structures of programming language, scientists tended to ignore them. ~ Read more at location 302

For too long, people have disparaged the emotional brain, blaming our feelings for all of our mistakes. The truth is far more interesting. What we discover when we look at the brain is that the horses and the charioteer depend upon each other. If it weren’t for our emotions, reason wouldn’t exist at all. ~ Read more at location 314

When we are cut off from our feelings, the most banal decisions became impossible. A brain that can’t feel can’t make up its mind. ~ Read more at location 342

When a person is drawn to a specific receiver, or a certain entrée on the menu, or a particular romantic prospect, the mind is trying to tell him that he should choose that option. It has already assessed the alternatives—this analysis takes place outside of conscious awareness—and converted that assessment into a positive emotion. And when he sees a receiver who’s tightly covered, or smells a food he doesn’t like, or glimpses an ex-girlfriend, it is the OFC that makes him want to get away. (Emotion and motivation share the same Latin root, movere, which means “to move.”) The world is full of things, and it is our feelings that help us choose among them. ~ Read more at location 379

The evolution of the human brain changed everything. For the first time, there was an animal that could think about how it thought. We humans could contemplate our emotions and use words to dissect the world, parsing reality into neat chains of causation. We could accumulate knowledge and logically analyze problems. We could tell elaborate lies and make plans for the future. Sometimes, we could even follow our plans. ~ Read more at location 468

When it comes to the new parts of the brain, evolution just hasn’t had time to work out the kinks. The emotional brain, however, has been exquisitely refined by evolution over the last several hundred million years. Its software code has been subjected to endless tests, so it can make fast decisions based on very little information. ~ Read more at location 475

When evolution was building the brain, it didn’t bother to replace all of those emotional processes with new operations under explicit, conscious control. If something isn’t broken, then natural selection isn’t going to fix it. The mind is made out of used parts, engineered by a blind watchmaker. The result is that the uniquely human areas of the mind depend on the primitive mind underneath. 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. ~ Read more at location 495

Chapter 2. The Predictions of Dopamine

The brain is designed to amplify the shock of these mistaken predictions. Whenever it experiences something unexpected—like a radar blip that doesn’t fit the usual pattern, or a drop of juice that doesn’t arrive—the cortex immediately takes notice. Within milliseconds, the activity of the brain cells has been inflated into a powerful emotion. Nothing focuses the mind like surprise. ~ Read more at location 659

When the ACC is worried about some anomaly—for instance, an errant blip on a radar screen—that worry is immediately translated into a somatic signal as the muscles prepare for action. Within seconds, heart rate increases, and adrenaline pours into the bloodstream. These fleshly feelings compel us to respond to the situation right away. A racing pulse and sweaty palms are the brain’s way of saying that there’s no time to waste. This prediction error is urgent. ~ Read more at location 671

This is an essential aspect of decision-making. If we can’t incorporate the lessons of the past into our future decisions, then we’re destined to endlessly repeat our mistakes. ~ Read more at location 679

Human emotions are rooted in the predictions of highly flexible brain cells, which are constantly adjusting their connections to reflect reality. Every time you make a mistake or encounter something new, your brain cells are busy changing themselves. Our emotions are deeply empirical. ~ Read more at location 708

When the mind is denied the emotional sting of losing, it never figures out how to win. ~ Read more at location 791

Dopamine neurons need to be continually trained and retrained, or else their predictive accuracy declines. Trusting one’s emotions requires constant vigilance; intelligent intuition is the result of deliberate practice. What Cervantes said about proverbs—”They are short sentences drawn from long experience”—also applies to brain cells, but only if we use them properly. ~ Read more at location 813

Even when Robertie wins—and he almost always wins—he insists on searching for his errors, dissecting those decisions that could have been a little bit better. He knows that self-criticism is the secret to self-improvement; negative feedback is the best kind. ~ Read more at location 846

The problem with praising kids for their innate intelligence—the “smart” compliment—is that it misrepresents the neural reality of education. It encourages kids to avoid the most useful kind of learning activities, which is learning from mistakes. 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. ~ Read more at location 882

A bit of early weaving, for resourcing later

  1. Written back in February of 2009: Decision Making: How do you do it?
  2. More in my Talking Story tag on decision-making, and on decisions
  3. My Talking Story tag on thinking
  4. A personal favorite, written in June of 2007: Believe in Your Biology

Biology (and the history of our evolution as humans) is something I have definitely become more friendly with since I was force-fed it in school: I like learning how my own biology can make my own observations more logical, or at least soften them with a more comforting understanding … that scissors-blade effect in action!

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