Lisa's Reviews > How We Decide

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer
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Apr 16, 2009

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Recommended to Lisa by: NPR
Recommended for: brainiacs
Read in April, 2009

How We Decide opens with a killer first sentence: "I was flying a Boeing 737 into Tokyo Narita International Airport when the left engine caught on fire." Right away, I am hooked. As the paragraph progresses, in heart thumping detail, my eyes flick back to the first sentence, to confirm that the author is indeed the pilot on this flight, and not a passenger.
Something strikes me as odd. Before reaching the end of the two paragraph opening page, I find myself flipping to the author photo on the back flap of the book. The author looks like a young kid. If I were a bartender, I'd card him. No, in honor of the subject of the book, let me rephrase that; if I were a bartender, I'd decide to card him. As a reader, I decided to scan his credentials; editor at large for Seed magazine. Author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist. Graduate of Columbia University. Rhodes Scholar. Lab worker. Editor. Blogger. How did this kid find the time to also get a pilot's license? I read on.
The author is faced with a highly technical life or death decision; should he increase the throttle, or steepen the descent? He decides to gain velocity by faking a nose dive. He writes, "Immediately, I started to go faster. The problem was that I was headed straight for a suburb in Tokyo."
The next page, the gig is up. Turns out, our author is faking more than the nose dive; the anecdote is a sham. Paragraph seven reveals that our industrious author is recalling his experience in a flight simulator. Which leaves me to wonder, should I trust our narrator, or not? He is picking and choosing which details to share, as every author must, and doing it more skillfully than most. How am I to trust which details reveal a truth about decision making, and which details merely support a virtuoso performance? Esthetically, I am charmed. Intellectually, I am wary.
I venture with caution into the first chapter, which questions the Platonic notion that reason must triumph over emotion by declaring that, "without emotion, reason wouldn't exist at all," and supports this assertion with an entertaining, crowd pleasing play by play examples of gut decisions made by NFL quarterbacks. I'm not a football fan, so I still see the puppeteer's strings, but these promptly disappear as I am presented with an anecdote about Antonio Damasio, who is the neurologist version of Brett Favre. Is it geeky to be more taken by neurologists than quarterbacks? Not when you have MS.
I digress.
Demasio encountered a patient who had undergone brain surgery to remove a tumor in his frontal cortex; while this man's considerable intellect had survived intact, his life had subsequently disintegrated. He was fired from his corporate management position; his businesses failed, his marriage failed, he'd been taken in by a scam, he'd gone bankrupt. What struck Damasio, though, was that the fellow was able to describe his ruination without a trace of emotion. His neutral affect intrigued Damasio, who hooked the guy up to a machine which measures the activity of sweat glands in the palms to quantify emotional response. The man was presented with reliably provocative images; violence, porn, you get the picture. No sweat. The guy was impervious to any emotional provocation. While any of us armchair diagnosticians can easily imagine the man's emotional vacancy was the cause of the disintegration of his marriage, Damasio wondered the damage went further than that; perhaps this man's lack of emotions also led to his failures in the other, supposedly more rational aspects of his life. For there was one intriguing deficit the man complained of; since his surgery, he'd been chronically incapable of making even the smallest decision. We think of decision making as being a rational process, yet it was not this man's intellect that was stripped away, but his emotions; without reference to them, he was unable to choose a restaurant, much less a menu item, and this deficit was proving to be utterly debilitating. Damasio wondered if the emotions play a greater part in decision making than we generally give them credit for.
Our author does not leave us with a one note argument for trusting one's emotions in decision making. Instead, he illustrates cases for using one's rational mind as elegantly as he argues the cases for using one's emotional intuition. The key, of course, is to learn how to think about our thinking; to learn to recognize which decisions are best informed by reason, and which by emotion. Many of the experiments presented here were not new to me, but this core thesis promoting metacognition presented a fine uniting principal, and justified the retelling of these stories.
By the way, for those of you who would like to hear a surprisingly different take on the crash of United Airlines 232, it's worth viewing disc 3 of Errol Morris' First Person 2000 series. It tells the story of the same incident, from another point of view, designating a different hero and a different decision making process. This is not to say that Morris' perspective detracts from the perspective offered here; it simply serves as a delicious reminder that the facts can serve different masters. I will close by observing that the author, Jonah Lehrer, is a fellow goodreads member. One of his quotes, interestingly enough, is from Jane Austen:
"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken." — I imagine, then, that he would encourage you to seek other versions of these stories, as well.
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Ms.pegasus Thanks for the info. about an alternative interpretation to UAL#232. Perceptive comment about shaping narratives to fit one's argument.


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