Saturday, February 21, 2009

Book Review: How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

Among the enigmas of human existence, the brain is singular in its importance. It not only defines us as a species, but is also the seat of our consciousness, allowing us, among other things, to wonder about ourselves, our world, and our own mortality.

But the brain is also a mystery in its own right. Since the days of the ancient Greeks, men have argued about its role in setting us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. And the split between our rationality and our passion—our capacity for thought as well as feeling—has been food for philosophers since the beginning of civilization. Plato argued that it was rationality that set us apart from animals and made us human; Aristotle, his pupil, believed that the brain’s role was to manage our emotions and apply them intelligently to the world around us.

In How We Decide, author Jonah Lehrer explores our current state of knowledge about our defining organ, the human brain. In an intelligent and engaging way, he shows how evolution has developed the two sides of our mind—our rational left hemisphere, and our emotional, intuitive right hemisphere—to give us a flexible and adaptable thinking tool that lets us apply quite varied modes of reasoning to the problems that we confront.

Lehrer shows how learning to trust our instincts and feelings can help us solve problems quickly and intuitively, when there is no time to reason out a problem. Yet we must also be cautious about relying too heavily upon our gut feelings and emotions, for they are easily fooled if we are facing a situation that is unfamiliar. Mastering the interplay between the two—and, most importantly, learning which to trust in what circumstances—is the mark of someone who makes consistently good decisions. There are, after all, some situations where thinking too much is counterproductive, and where lab rats do better than graduate students, simply because they lack the capacity to overthink. In humans, the ability to sense when to shift to a different mode of thinking is often what separates the wise from the foolish among us. And more often than not, a willingness to examine and learn from our own mistakes is what teaches us when, and how, to make the switch.

Using examples that range from professional football players to airline pilots, from casinos to modern politics, the author shows how our minds can solve problems seamlessly, or be tripped up by bells and whistles designed to soothe our senses and make us feel good. In our turbulent times, the ability to use our heads to recognize and sift through the perils and pitfalls we face is a daunting task, often made even harder by the confusing array of information that greets us every day. Tightly written and entertaining, How We Decide gives us reason to hope, and some useful perspective on our ability to make sense of our rapidly changing world.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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