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WHAT I JUST READ: HOW WE DECIDE.

July 11, 2011

as i was acquainting myself with my new company’s website, i came across their science-themed book club. i’m not much of a book club kind of gal, but one of the book descriptions actually caught my eye. i typically prefer a good novel or memoir, so non-fiction doesn’t hit my reading list very often. but in keeping with my plan to read more instead of watching tv in 2011, i though i’d give it a shot. so, i picked up how we decide by jonah lehrer.

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i’m not exactly a decisive person, so i thought this might provide a little insight into what goes into making decision or how to improve. i was a little nervous that this would be some wordy, technical report, but it had three ice cream cones on the cover, so i figured it couldn’t be too bad. and thankfully, i was right. the book does present lehrer’s scientific information, but in a way that i could understand… and that kept me interested in reading for the most part. he uses anecdotes along the way that help show the reader different circumstances in which the brain is making decisions, starting with a story about how tom brady decides to make his passes (for all of you pats fans among us).

the basic principle of the book is that some decisions are made with logic, some with emotion and some with a combination of both. back in the day, philosophers tried to pitch the idea that rational thought was the only way to make decisions, but lehrer explores the idea that your emotions can actually be as crucial to decision making as using reason. he tells us that emotions are tied to brain cells that are constantly developing depending on experience and that as new situations occur, the neurons in your brain adapt to new expectations. “fool me once, shame on you. fool me twice, shame on my dopamine neurons.”

there’s also the question of how much information can the brain really focus on at one time. unconsciously? a lot. you have no idea how much info your brain is processing, but that’s the point, it’s all happening without you fixating on it. it’s taking in everything around you to develop. but consciously, scientists say that you can only comprehend 5-9 items at one time. throw more than that at your conscious brain and it starts to get confused… and you start to make worse decisions. that made me contemplate the idea of twitter and facebook and google + and advertisements and marketing and all of the other stuff that the world tries to throw at us… and that we usually gobble up. an interesting concept for someone in the marketing field, as we contemplate all the time how we can make consumers decide. in many cases, it’s all up to the unconscious.

speaking of conscious, rational decision making… did you know that a bad mood occurs when the brain (specifically the prefrontal cortex) is tired? when that portion of the brain is overrun with making conscious decisions and the body is not supplied with energy, you become less able to deal with small annoyances and get cranky.

research has found that “different brain areas think different things for different reasons.” sometimes emotion paves the way for decisions and you may not be able to consciously explain why you believe what you believe, but that’s because all of these little arguments were happening inside your brain tissue without you knowing it. this happens with anything from choosing a box of cereal at the grocery store to sometimes picking a candidate for a primary. lehrer suggests that simple problems (what defines a simple problem? that depends on what you find important) should be solved with reason, but that larger, more complex, more important problems should employ some emotion and reason. in fact, it may be best to acquire all of the conscious facts possible, look for any opposing opinions (take all sides into account) and then walk away if you can. when you come back to the decision, your unconscious brain will have used your experiences and emotion unconsciously to bring you to the right answer. that’s the simple version, clearly. this guy explains it a lot better than me. but it does seem oddly similar to what i do while shopping. many times i’ll walk around a store, seeing items that i want to buy. i pick them up, look at the prices, compare them to other items, and gather the essential information. i hold on to them, but before heading to the register and after i’ve forgotten about them, i consider them again. and over the years, i seem to be putting more of them back. the things i end up purchasing are more often the ones that i really really want or need. my mom thinks i’m weird. but maybe, just maybe, i’m making good decisions.

in a nutshell, the book is worth a read. the guy who wrote it is a neuroscientist, and a young one at that. he seems to know what he’s talking about and he knows how to explain it in a way that non-neuroscientists can understand. not exactly a beach read, but maybe it’s a good book for the fall, back-to-school time, time to get the brain moving again.

if you want to know more, here’s a review by the new york times.

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