Brendan's Reviews > How We Decide

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
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Jan 01, 13

bookshelves: non-fiction, psychology
Read in December, 2012

I read Lehrer's "How We Decide" as the latest installment in my recent fascination with written research on the human brain. Lehrer performs a meta-analysis of several studies performed on human cognition and attempts to shed light on how exactly we as a species leverage different regions of the brain to make decisions. Lehrer describes the human cognitive system as a decision-making spectrum where one end represents decisions we make instinctually, while the other end represents decisions we rationalize.

Instinctual decisions are made by a more primitve region of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This region of the brain deals with our emotions and is also closely tied to our dopamine-releasing self-reward system. We often associate decisions made by the ACC as "coming from the gut."

In conctrast, rationalized decisions come from the prefrontal cortex, a much more recent evolutionary development of the human brain. Making rational decisions requires the brain to process and analyze a set of sensory input data and determine a reaction. While this is the slower means of making a decision, it allows us to make very complicated, educated choices and it distinguishes us from our mammalian cousins.

When we practice solving problems through repetitive training, we push the decision-making from the prefrontal cortex to the ACC. This is the act of creating habits and helps explain why a pilot can process a huge amount of complex data and take just the right steps to save a doomed airplane full of passengers through a series of "gut" decisions.

Overusing the ACC leads to emotionally-driven, compulsory decisions. Overusing the prefrontal cortex leads to decision paralysis. Lehrer suggests that simply being aware of how we think -- whether we're relying on the ACC or the prefrontal cortex -- can lead us to make better decisions.

"How We Decide" was scientific and technical without being dry or inaccessible by a reader with limited nerological knowledge such as me. Reading the book has undoubtedly changed the way I think about thinking, and I firmly believe I can improve many of my own bad decision-making habits (particularly my issue with indecision) with this added perspective. Interested in the human min? Read this.
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