Focus on Learning: Jonah Lehrer (2)

July 12, 2010

More on Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), the book we are reading for this year’s Faculty Retreat at Earlham.

Lehrer has a fascinating chapter called “The Brain Is an Argument,” presenting the brain as an organ of many parts that contend in making even the most routine and mundane decisions.  “Vigorous cortical debate” is “a defining feature of the decision-making process,” he argues (p 199).  Moreover, he quotes Antoine Bechara, a neuroscientist at USC as asserting that “most of the computation” in weighing the various viewpoints in this argument “is done an emotional, unconscious level, not at a logical level.”

Lehrer goes on to say that because of this constant argument, “it feels good to be certain.”  “While neural pluralism is a crucial virtue — the human mind can analyze any problem from a variety of different angles — it also makes us insecure.  You never know which brain area you should obey” (p 210).  And thus we are tempted towards certainty, which “imposes consensus on this inner cacophany.”

He cites research by Philip Tetlock, a University of California-Berkeley psychologist on political pundits, recognized experts who forecast the future, showing that these pundits’ predictions were correct at a rate less than random chance.  The urge to be certain appeared to lure them into error.

Lehrer’s book is not soothing to those who have confidence in conscious, rational decision-making.  He does think reason has its uses, especially for “simple problems” (p 244) and “novel problems” (p 246), but mostly “we know more than we know,” and are better off trusting brain processes that are not conscious or rational.  He does, on the other hand, urge us “to study your brain at work, to listen to the argument inside your head” (p 250).  Thinking about thinking is helpful, even if, in many decision situations, thinking is not helpful.

Jonah Lehrer also maintains a blog, The Frontal Cortex, I’ve started reading regularly, and recommend.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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