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Applications Reading Response: How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer attempts to describe the neurological foundations behind our human decision-making.  He focuses on two main areas of the brain, the prefrontal cortex and the midbrain dopamine system, and explains how they are mapped to the different types of decisions we make, which he defines as “rational” and “emotional”.  The first sections of the book describe how these parts of the brain are activated in specific decision-making circumstances, for example when weighing long term rewards over short-term stimulation.  The prefrontal cortex (connected with the “rational brain”) becomes active when a fireman overrides the instinct to run away from a fire and instead decide to light a smaller one, creating a buffer of burnt land for protection.  It has the ability to override instinct.  The dopamine system in the brain (connected to the “emotional” brain) is active when anticipation is called upon, like when a monkey expects a sweet reward after learning how to pull on a lever.

Lehrer likens the rational brain to computer hardware.  Though incredibly capable of processing information, it’s bound by it’s own physical limitations.  He writes, “These new talents [created by the development of the prefrontal cortex in humans] were incredibly useful.  But they were also incredibly new… [they] suffer from the same problem that afflicts any new technology: they have lots of design flaws and software bugs” (p. 24).  In contrast, the emotional brain relies on instincts that have evolved over the last several hundred million years.  The thinking that a quarterback needs to throw a complete pass under pressure is different than what a pilot requires when his plane is going down.

Lehrer states that the emotional brain falls short when dopamine neurons try to evaluate a situation and sense a pattern where there isn’t one.  He explains the emotional brain can’t always be trusted, for example when faced with picking stocks or playing a slot machine.  “Because the dopamine neurons can’t figure out the pattern, they can’t adapt to the pattern.  The result is that you are transfixed by the slot machine, riveted by the fickle nature of its payouts” (p. 61).  In situations like this, where the brain seeks out patterns when they aren’t there, intuitions can’t be trusted.

Conversely, it is possible to “overthink”.  One of the points I find most interesting and relatable in this book is the idea that there are physical limitations to the types of information our brains can process, and when those thresholds are exceeded, different modes of decision making become more appropriate.   Lehrer acknowledges the misconception that more information always produces smarter decisions.  He argues that there is a time and place when intuition, which comes from the emotional brain, is sufficient to make the “best” choice; when the brain is forced to overthink, it can actually result in an overload of unnecessary stimulation that impedes the decision-making process.  He cites an experiment involving a taste test of forty-five different types of strawberry jam.  Those results would be compared to ones already calculated by Consumer Reports.  In this blind test, subjects were asked to rate the jams from best tasting to worst.  The results were overwhelmingly consistent with the professional ratings.  “When it comes to judging jam, we are all natural experts” (p. 142).  When the test was repeated with a separate group of tasters, who this time were asked to explain why they preferred one jam over the other in a questionnaire, the correlation to the Consumer Reports ratings plummeted.  People talked themselves out of their own instincts when pressed to consider variables that weren’t vital to the decision being made (texture and spreadability, for example).  The “wisdom” of their instincts was lost, replaced by an overload of unnecessary “rational” observations.

I find this to be true whenever filling out evaluations.  Even if I have a negative experience (in a group work situation, or with a course or instructor), when asked to articulate these feelings I almost always talk myself out of them (“It really wasn’t that bad… If I can’t describe why I have these feelings, they must not have existed in such a way”).  My rational brain overwhelms my visceral responses, and the result is I just go with what I can express on paper.

Another practical experience I’ve had relating to the effects of too much information has been described by The Simpsons as “Three Stooges Syndrome” (bear with me).   Mr. Burns, the town’s resident hundred-year-old evil billionaire, goes to the doctor and is told that the reason he hasn’t died yet is because he has every disease known to man.  The individual diseases haven’t killed him because they’re all trying to get through the “door” at once, and they get stuck.  The following dialogue results:

 

Mr. Burns: So what you’re saying is, I’m indestructible.
Doctor: Oh, no, no, in fact, even slight breeze could…
Mr. Burns: Indestructible.

 

When there’s too much going on, everything cancels out.  The brain becomes overwhelmed and checks out.  Overstimulation feels like no stimulation at all.  When I was younger, I always believed the word “ambivalence” meant apathy.  Although they are opposites, their results are the same.  The mind can experience Three Stooges Syndrome and when it’s unable to cope, can simply give up and shut down.  What Lehrer ultimately concludes is that these two different types of brain activity should not be seen in conflict with one another, but in collaboration due to special functions of prefrontal cortex and dopamine systems, best suited to different tasks.  The trick is to learn how to better balance how and when they are used.

Although I felt that a good few of Lehrer’s points were relatable and well-explained, I still had some issues with his reliance on concrete definitions of “emotion” and “reason”.  At times the examples he used seemed to be analyzed and presented in an overly simplified way, to better reinforce this binary.  The foundation of his thesis felt too simple to support the variety of evidence he provided, which at times seemed as if they could be understood in different ways.  I understand the benefit of simplifying such complex neurological phenomena, if it were more technically written most of this book would be beyond my understanding, but I ultimately found the style and simplicity distracting from the validity of his points.  Although I had stronger negative visceral response to this reading, when forced to articulate exactly why in this response, I found I could not.  Conflict between emotional and rational brain, case in point!

 

4 comments to Applications Reading Response: How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

  • Nancy

    Great ending! Did you read the other responses of your classmates to this essay. I think you’ll find them interesting.
    Love the Simpson’s reference…
    Very thoughtful piece.
    Do you think everyone should read this essay? What question would you ask Lethem if you could?

  • gj lee

    some months ago i was really lucky to attend a microtalk given by david sirlin, he’s a game designer who is knowledgeable about fighting games and has balanced a couple of street fighter titles.

    sirlin talked about how competitive video game players are able to make quick decisions in such tiny fragments of time and the process their brains go through for that important decision. then he went on to discuss conscious thought and unconscious thought. conscious thought takes longer than unconscious decision making but due to severe time constraints when it comes to decision making during a match, players have to rely on unconscious thought. the comparison between the two is quite surprising:

    simple conscious thought > simple unconscious thought

    – however –

    complex conscious thought< complex unconscious thought

    "He explains the emotional brain can’t always be trusted, for example when faced with picking stocks or playing a slot machine. “Because the dopamine neurons can’t figure out the pattern, they can’t adapt to the pattern. The result is that you are transfixed by the slot machine, riveted by the fickle nature of its payouts” "
    sirlin also refers to unconscious thought as the part that helps players figure out patterns from their opponent and a study showed that during competitive play, while it seemed like they were able to figure out their opponent and make decisions they were not able to acknowledge that pattern. they ran another test right after but this time the player was told that their opponent did follow a pattern when playing and the results were odd: the quality of the player’s performance was much lower.

    i wonder if lehrer has done studies on individuals playing games, in particular fighting games and rts games like starcraft, and the process behind their decision making?

    btw, loved the simpsons reference as well!

  • Allison Burtch

    “Although I felt that a good few of Lehrer’s points were relatable and well-explained, I still had some issues with his reliance on concrete definitions of “emotion” and “reason”. At times the examples he used seemed to be analyzed and presented in an overly simplified way, to better reinforce this binary.”

    This is an interesting response to Lehrer, and I’m not sure if you heard this, but he was recently outed as plagiarizing himself in multiple respected news publications including the New Yorker and New York Magazine. Perhaps his lack of scientific rigor actually came through in his writing?
    http://nymag.com/daily/intel/2012/09/jonah-lehrer-plagiarism-but-wait-theres-more.html

  • Yolanda "Zaragoza"

    I really wanted to read this book. Especially after reading your response, I’m more motivated to doing so during the winter break. I am fascinated by the science of how we decide things. Just like computer hardware, our brain is programable. Our body is composed of complex systems of networks, sensors, and filters. With the brain controlling all of these functions, it is interesting to see on a macro level how the brain is a lot like computer hardware and has its limitations.

    It is often said that with every measurement, there is a degree of uncertainty. I can understand why Wynna would argue that It is hard to determine concrete definitions of “emotion” and “reason”. Since Lehrer is so concrete, there is no room for uncertainty?