Good thing Jonah Lehrer is early in his writing career, because I liked this book so much that I want to go out and buy everything he has ever written. (Stay tuned, because I’m sure I will be blogging about Proust Was a Neuroscientist soon.)
The book examines what occurs in our brains when we make decisions. More specifically, it explains the differences between emotional and rational decisions, and details which one is more efficient at any given time. Using recent brain research, Some of the most interesting and, at times poignant findings are from people who have suffered brain damage (such as those who have, or have had, brain tumors) – when the rational and emotional brains cannot work together, or when one does not work at all, it becomes virtually impossible do make certain decisions. For example, without a properly functioning emotional brain, people get stuck trying to make simple decisions (such as what shirt to wear, or what restaurant to eat at) because their rational brain can’t stop examining the pros and cons of each possible choice. Another surprise – the rational brain does not make the best shopping decisions – if you conduct exhaustive research on what car to buy, for example, you will not necessarily choose the best car
One section describes the criminal mind, and how, even though we might think of certain particularly heinous criminals as incapable of reason, some are actually ONLY capable of reason. Another talks about how our unconscious (emotional) mind gathers a wealth of information, and that when we talk of intuition, we are actually referring to the extremely effective functioning of this part of our brain. Lehrer also explains how we can teach our brains to function better in instances when there is not time to think (such as when a quarterback is on the field, or when an airline pilot faces an unusual problem while in the air).
This is not a textbook – it is written for everyone. I initially found this slightly frustrating, because I am used to reading academic books, with complete, easily verifiable citations – Lehrer includes a bibliography, but he doesn’t break up the text with footnotes or endnotes – but ultimately I decided that it makes the book more readable. His language is easily understood (a definite plus, particularly when he explains brain chemistry), and most readers are likely to enjoy his engaging, entertaining style.
There is something for everyone in this book – examples are interesting and varied – coming from everywhere, including the world of sports, aviation, military, firefighting, game shows, grocery stores, and others.
One thing I really liked is that Lehrer encourages personal responsibility in the actions of the general public (in other words, most of us can’t say that our brains made us mess up) – the final chapter of the book includes a list of suggestions about how to make better decisions, and how to examine our past choices to improve future ones. We can all benefit from this!
Scroll down for other posts about How We Decide:
Post 1: Quarterbacks have to take IQ Tests
Post 2: Emotions Control our Brains
Post 3: One Marshmallow or Two?
Post 4: The Cheap Stuff Tastes Better
Post 5: Moral Instincts Are Emotional, Not Rational
Post 6: Political Pundits vs. Dart-Throwing Chimps
Post 7: Want to be a Psychic Poker Player?