The book opens so thrillingly — a plane crash, a last-second Super Bowl victory, and a first chapter that comfortably reconciles Plato and Ovid with Tom Brady and John Madden — that it spawns a worry: Can the book possibly sustain this pace?
“How We Decide” delivers. Jonah Lehrer, — author of “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” blogger at Frontal Cortex, and (full disclosure) an online acquaintance and sometime colleague of mine for a couple years now (I asked him to take over editorship of Scientific American’s Mind Matters last year, and we share blogging duties at VeryShortList:Science) unpacks the rapidly expanding world of decision-making research with extraordinary clariity and drama.
There are scores of gripping stories and lucid research accounts here. But at the heart of both the neuroscientific study of decision-making and this book stands a central, transformative insight: The brain’s decision-making system, based on dopamine-sensitive cells in both emotional and cognitive regions, ties emotion and reason together so closely that the two operate almost as one. This system acquires the myriad small and large lessons on which we later base our decisions, and it provokes and helps drive the decisions themselves. The deeply embedded and heavily integrated nature of this system means that decisions are not just the deliberate binary choices we make, though those are important; they also include the hundreds of tiny evaluations — conscious, semi-conscious, subconscious — that drive our thought and behavior, often without any conscious thought. It follows that our best decisions come not from trumping passion with reason or “going with the gut” but from balancing an equation built with conscious and visceral knowledge — and learning to recognize when faulty data has crept into the formula.
This is a serious but seriously fun work about thinking that resists the easy take — it’s true to the science — but nevertheless bright, lucid, and lively. It’s the thinking person’s “Blink.”