Jonah Lehrer - How We Decide

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How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer Delightful

Mar 22, 2009 (Updated Mar 22, 2009)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Brilliant examination of how we make choices.

Cons:May require some background or familiarity with past scientific examples.

The Bottom Line: Definitely a book you will enjoy and want to own.  Lehrer's star is ascending quickly and neuroscience, emotionality and personal choice are hot topics right now.


True intellectual ability may appear rare these days, but author Jonah Lehrer shines and has given us a primer on how we can understand and improve our own decision-making ability in "How We Decide," published by Houghton Mifflin.  The content and quality of the writing will most likely win Mr. Lehrer who is a graduate of Columbia University and attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, many literary and scientific awards.  Similar in context to other books like "The Paradox of Choice" and "Emotional Intelligence," Lehrer in his 259 pages delights us with great scientific self-inquiry and philosophical discussion. 

His first book, "Proust Was A Neuroscientist," contained several artist-science portraits and was published when he was just 27.  He is editor-at-large for Seed Magazine and has contributed to the Boston Globe, Washington Post, the New Yorker and NPR's Radio Lab.  He is a comfortable writer to read and you have to admire his ability and credentials to cover a topic many cannot adequately.

I first saw Jonah Lehrer doing an interview for TV with Robert Krulwich from NPR at the Strand Bookstore in New York City.  The young author is very likeable, knowledgeable, literate and noncondescending, all the qualities you would expect and admire in a true intellectual.  He also exhibited a wonderful sense of graciousness and patience with questioning audience members which told me that he has definitely been developing the very skills he talks about in his latest book, "How We Decide."

Made up of eight or so chapters and a glorious expansive index, he keeps the outline clean and simple.  The book is chock full of current and past scientific psychological and sociological experiments along with explanations of the inner workings of the brain and how we think.  Lehrer's gift to the world is his ability to draw examples from experience to explain why we choose the way we do.  It has more to do with emotions than merely reason and rationality as he explains in his own personal account of trouble in the cereal aisle.

Lehrer tells us that emotional signals may really be driving our behavior and why strict rationality may actually strain our ability to allow for decision making or cause fear.  He gives the example of picking out cereal in the super market.  Perhaps we think one is as good as another, but it is our desire for sweets or savings or nutrition that actually point us to pick just one.  Honey-nut, bargain brand or Multi-grain Cheerios.  In the end, Lehrer decides to mix two boxes.

Too much rationalization may not be good for us.  We could be intimidated by too many choices, therefore, good use of what Lehrer calls "metacognition" skills are necessary.  We can actually train the brain to ignore fearful signals (what if we make the wrong choice?) or over-rationalization to the point of inability to make choices at all.

Metacognition is simply thinking about thinking.  We as humans have the ability to self-reflect.  We are aware about what we know.  We can reflect upon and structure our thought processes.  He tells us that we should move away from being "maximizers," always trying to decide upon the best, to becoming satisfied with one choice over another without regret.  Tests have actually been conducted that show there can be conflict between emotional motivation and reasons.  Even if it is easy to choose, it is not so easy to give reasons why we chose a certain way.

In order to create habits which prepare for emergencies or relaxation techniques which can allow for extraordinary insights, the brain must be challenged and controlled.  He shares that Buddhist monks have the uncanny ability to not be distracted nor fearful when making choices because they have trained themselves how to control the emotional centers of the brain, like the amygdala or frontal cortex. His chapter headings include, (3) Fooled by a Feeling; and (5) Choking on Thought.  It is not always good to be too focused since remote associations, like insights, are made during relaxation.  We need to be able to allow for introspection so that we can eavesdrop on our thoughts.

Lehrer has a website blog at http://www.scienceblog.com/cortex "The Frontal Cortex Blog."  This is one book you will want to own rather than borrow.  The cost is a bargain at around $15.95.


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