I had decided I had enough of Pop Psych books – I needed a break.

In the past 3 or 4 years I have been reading almost exclusively about psychology and neuroscience.

Random titles that pop up in my mind: Stumbling on Happiness (D. Gilbert), Strangers to Ourselves (T. Wilson), The Happiness Hypothesis (Haidt), The How of Happiness (Lyubomirsky), Sway (Ori and Rom Brafman), Nudge (Thaler & Sunstein), Predictably Irrational (Ariely), The Logic of Life (T. Harford), Positivity (B. Fredrickson), Kluge (G. Marcus), Brain Rules (J. Medina), Made to Stick (Chip & Dan Heath), Yes! (Martin, Cialdini), Talent is Overrated (G. Colvin) Outliers (M. Gladwell), Mindset (C. Dweck)…

and before that books by: J.R. Harris (personal favorite of mine), S. Pinker, S. Blackmore, D. Wegner, D. Dennett, M. Shermer, R. Wright, M. RIdley, M. Gladwell…

Yes, I definitely needed a break. My decision was final.

But addiction is hard to cure. One day I went downtown with my wife. We drifted into a Barnes & Noble. Obviously I went straight to the science section. Jonah Lehrer‘s book caught my attention. I grabbed it, thinking: “a book with a title like this… I would have bought it just a few months ago” and I smiled to myself, confident in my resolve. I started browsing the book, with an attitude of faked detachment and a know-it-all hubris. I read a few paragraphs here and there. I was immediately captivated by the author’s prose: elegant, engaging, clear. I was taken aback! I still held true to my commitment and put the book back in the shelf when it was time to go. I walked out of a bookstore with no books! Amazing!! Needless to say, the very same night I bought Jonah Lehrer’s book on Amazon.

Let’s cut to the chase: I liked it.
True, I was familiar with many of the studies mentioned in the book. I am an avid follower of WNYC radio lab: the author is a contributor to the show, and I found in printing a lot of what I heard on my ipod.
However, the narrative was brilliant. The style engaging. Each chapter begins with a riveting real-world story that is then used to illustrate scientific insights into the working of the brain: so we have the gripping perspective of a Quarterback playing the Super Bowl, the dilemma of a Royal Navy officer in the war room of the British destroyer HMS Gloucester during the Gulf War, the drama unfolding in the cockpit of United Airlines flight 232 (to name just a few). I wonder whether Jonah Lehrer read “Made to Stick” – he seems to be following the advice of Chip & Dan Heath in a brilliant way: use emotional and memorable stories to make your main point.

I think “How we Decide” does a good job in showing the complexity of human decision-making: intuition serves us well if we have practice in the specific field (we know more than we think); however, it can also lead us astray in predictable ways, and in those situations thinking the issue through is the way to go. However do not overthink, that also is a problem.

It is interesting that another reviewer found the book inconsistent.
I agree that Lehrer does not present a clear and cut strategy for decision making; however, I felt that the “inconsistencies” reflected the nuances of real-world decision-making and the complexity of the subject.
It’s hard to find a simple metaphor to use to illustrate the way the brain works. The dichotomy emotion – reason is obviously too simple. But it is a way to start, just like the planetary model of the atom is not how things actually work but it is very useful to help students get acquainted with a basic notion of what an atom is. The fact that inconsistencies pop up, that real life oozes out of the straight jacket imposed on it by any simplistic idea, it is to me a sign that the author is trying to show us the whole picture.

If I have a criticism, that is about the use of neuroanatomical parts of the brain as actors – I still cringe reading sentences like “Such restraint was possible only because Haynes,…, used his prefrontal cortex to manage his emotions.”, p. 127, or  “Because he [Haynes, UA232 pilot] took advantage of his prefrontal cortex, relying on its uniquely flexible neurons, he managed to avert an almost certain disaster.”, p. 132. The pilot relied on his prefrontal cortex, but also on his whole mind.  By naming the prefrontal cortex as an actor, or the ACC as an actor, or the dopamine system as actor (my neurons made me do it!) we are downplaying the role played by other parts of the brain, by the body, by the situational cues. It would be different to say, for example that “Haynes used his ability to control himself and to think under pressure to avoid disaster, AND that the prefrontal cortex plays a big role in the ability to keep one’s cool.”

Similarly, I felt that sometimes the interpretation given by the author to some studies seems stretched so the referenced studies can fit the narrative, and not, as it should be, the other way around. For example, the placebo effect is showcased as demonstrating “the power of the prefrontal cortex to modulate even the most basic bodily signals” in the chapter dedicated to over-thinking (“Choking on Thought”). I think the placebo effect does not fit well in the chapter narrative. Moreover, Wager’s study about the placebo effect, used here by Jonah Lehrer, could also be used to demonstrate the concept of the “extended mind” (see “Out of Our Heads” by Alva Noe).

Having said that, what I loved about the book was the author’s vivid writing: it kept me engaged while pleasantly leading me to see different perspectives of materials that I knew already.

Bottom line: I am happy I decided to buy the book.

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