How We Decide

The brain’s inner workings invite many metaphors– Plato’s concept of horses (emotions) and charioteer (reason), or a supercomputer calculating odds and counting cards. Rational thought is not the end-all-be-all of our brains– emotional decisions are a way for us to deal with thousands of minutia feeding into the decision; instinct is build on eons of evolutionary trial and error.
Mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged, but rather cultivated and studied. We don’t learn until we make a mistake. Praising kids for being “smart” as opposed to their “effort” leads them to choose easier paths and avoid challenges; encourages them to avoid learning from mistakes by avoiding mistakes.

Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process. (54)

Commander Riley had a bad feeling about a blip he saw on the radar during the Gulf War, and made the decision to shoot it down. He couldn’t explain his feeling. Researchers later went back and analyzed the data, finally finding that the blip showed up on the radar further away from the shore than the other blips. This was recognized by Riley’s subconscious; a dopamine neuron in his brain was surprised by this blip’s behavior. The cell responded to this surprise by altering its rate of firing, sending an electrical message through the brain to publicize the prediction error.
The placebo effect “depends entirely on the prefrontal cortex, the center of reflective, deliberative thought. When people were told that they’d just received pain-relieving cream, their frontal lobes responded by inhibiting the activity of their emotional brain areas that normally respond to pain. Because people expected to experience less pain, they ended up experiencing less pain.”
“When we’re hungry or tired, the brain is less able to suppress the negative emotions sparked by small annoyances. A bad mood is really just a rundown prefrontal cortex.”
Too much information overwhelms us. Herbert Simon quoted, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” The danger of too much information is that it can interfere with understanding. When the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed, a person can no longer make sense of the situation.
Mirroring neurons are a small cluster of cells that mirror the movements of other people- if you see someone smile, your mirror neurons light up like you’re smiling. These cells reflect the expressions of everyone else, on your inside. Giacomo Rizzolatti (discoverer of mirror neurons) quoted, “They allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation; by feeling, not by thinking.”
“Once people become socially isolated, they stop simulating the feelings of other people. Their moral intuitions are never turned on. As a result, the inner Machiavelli takes over, and the sense of sympathy is squashed by selfishness.”
“The best way to make sure that you are using your brain properly is to study your brain at work, to listen to the argument inside your head.”
“Why is thinking about thinking so important? It helps us steer clear of stupid errors. You can’t avoid loss aversion unless you know that the mind treats losses differently than gains… The mind is full of flaws, but they can be outsmarted… There is no secret recipe for decision-making. There is only vigilance, the commitment to avoiding those errors that can be avoided.”


auth=Lehrer, Jonah
pub=2009
isbn=0618620117