Jonah Lehrer’s engaging new book, “How We Decide,” puts our decision-making skills under the microscope. At 27, Lehrer is something of a popular science prodigy, having already published, in 2007, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” which argued that great artists anticipated the insights of modern brain science. “How We Decide” tilts more decisively in the thinking- person’s self-help direction, promising not only to explain how we decide, but also to help us do it better.
Explaining decision-making on the scale of neurons makes for a challenging task, but Lehrer handles it with confidence and grace. As an introduction to the cognitive struggle between the brain’s “executive” rational centers and its more intuitive regions, “How We Decide” succeeds with great panache, though readers of other popular books on this subject (Antonio Damasio’s “Descartes’ Error” and Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence,” for example) will be familiar with a number of the classic experiments Lehrer describes.
I got a special jolt of pleasure from this review, as Steven Johnson has long been one of my favorite science/culture writers. Johnson’s Mind Wide Open, which did such an eloquent job of leveraging our new knowledge of the brain for practical wisdom, was one of the books that made me want to write How We Decide in the first place. And I’ve been remiss in not praising The Invention of Air, Johnson’s latest, which is thought-provoking on so many levels: it situates the perennial American science/politics conflict in a historical context (and leaves one with an even greater respect for the intellects of our Founding Fathers); it explores an “ecosystem” approach to understanding the birth of revolutionary ideas; and it makes one appreciate the importance of caffeine and coffeehouse culture as a trigger for the Age of Enlightenment.
Also, it is with great regret that I’ve had to temporarily disable comments on this blog. I’ve been inundated with spam comments and all the usual tricks haven’t worked. I’m taking this step now so that people don’t waste their valuable time submitting a comment only to get it snagged by the overeager spam filter, which has been happening far too often in recent days. Feel free to email comments (contact info above) and I’ll try to make sure we maintain some sort of conversation on this blog, as it’s such an important part of The Frontal Cortex. I’m especially interested in dissenting and critical comments.