How the brain makes up its mind

In The Decisive Moment, Jonah Lehrer arms us with the tools we need, drawing on cutting-edge research by psychologists as well as the world’s most interesting ‘deciders’ – from airline pilots, world-famous sportsmen and hedge fund investors to serial killers, politicians and poker players.  He shows how the fluctuations of a few dopamine neurons saved a battleship during the Persian gulf War, and how the fevered activity of a sinlge brain region led to the sub-prime mortgage crisis.  Lehrer’s goal is to answer two questions that are of interested to just about anyone, from CEOs to fire fighters: How does the human mind make decisions?  And how can we make those decisions better?

One person did not enjoy the book so much and another did not get past the first example because it concerned an old problem with aviation. However, the remainder of the group found the book interesting, in particular its structure, which centered on giving an event or experiment from real life as an example to explain how the brain works. Most of the group found they could relate the examples given to their own lives.

The discussion was opened by pointing out that the author’s proposition that the brain has been engineered by ‘a blind watchmaker’ over a long period echoed Richard Dawkins’, our last author’s argument for evolution. In this work Jonah Lehrer proposes that over time the brain has refined its accumulated evidential responses through repeated testing into emotions we cannot do without; reason alone is insufficient in that it leads to indecision – in other words, there are never enough facts to reach a reasonable decision.

The moderator asked what the group thought of the book’s structure, wherein each chapter is countered in the next, demonstrating that no one aspect of the brain is sufficient for a decision, so that the author finally proposes that the brain makes up its mind by committee as it were.

In response, one reader drew on the book by likening the process to a cockpit wherein the pilot has the rational brain and the computers helping him or her fly the plane contain the emotions based on past experiences that are used to make the right decisions. This prompted referral to the software program developed by one of the scientists on whose experiments the book draws. In this example a software program literally learns to play backgammon by playing the game against a human being. In this context it was suggested that perhaps the call centers that now proliferate should use programs such as that one rather than the people who sit in front of terminals housing so-called expert systems, in effect business flowcharts. The point was taken up with reference to aviation, suggesting that many of the pilots now probably did not know how to fly as they functioned more as operators of on-board computers, which caused some jovial consternation among the group, leading to examples of poor decision-making by groups of people unable to communicate properly.

The moderator then asked the group what they thought of the author’s proposition that given what we know about the brain now philosophers such as Kant and in particular Freud did not what they were talking about.

In response it was suggested that the experiments the author uses are quite new. The moderator pointed out that while this might excuse Kant and older philosophers it did not give Freud much of one. The group did not agree with this, again on the same basis, namely that the experiments cited were from a much later date. The moderator countered by pointing to the influence that members of Freud’s family appear to have had with the US and UK governments who on their instigation are said to have based many of their policy decisions on Freud’s psychoanalytical propositions – on the grounds of protecting individuals from themselves, more specifically from their inner urges. The point was not further discussed. Instead the group returned to discussing whether the accumulated knowledge on which basis the brain prompts an emotion was that or whether it would be better to refer to it as an intuition. One member suggested that ‘intuition’ could create as many difficulties as ‘emotion’, so why not say whether it was emotion or intuition, it was the opposite of reasoning? This was objected to on the basis that as in the example given in the book with reference to American football, experience and practice gave the decision-maker a feelingon which he felt he could act without rational analysis – for which, in the case of American football, he did not have the time anyway. The member who objected on this basis continued by drawing attention to chess masters who play up to fifty opponents at the same time in exhibitions. In such cases they always play white because this allows them to play fifty variations of the same opening. Each board gives them a snapshot of what they already know, according to which they act without having to think – except in the few cases where their opponent has (probably by chance) introduced a new variation. The point being that you do not want to go through the same reasoning process every time. You’ve done that, so you commit it to memory from whence it comes back as a feeling; as in the example given in the book with regard to a radar blip that because of the delay in the blips correctly proved to the observer to be a missile and not a friendly plane as its path suggested. The group agreed that this example in the book was one of best in that it showed how ‘reason’ and ‘emotion’ worked in tandem. A member applied this also to the example in the book where without an ‘emotion’,‘intuition’ or ‘feeling’ a person cannot choose a car on a purely rational basis, as there are just too many cars and models and variations within these to evaluate.

The group’s attention was then drawn to three examples from the book, which one member said interested her most. The first was the example that showed the prefrontal cortex was not as strong as the impulsive side of our brain, the upshot being that one could not expect good judgments from adolescents. The next example concerned the mirrored neurons that enable us to recognize faces and its importance in developing social relationships and ethics. Last but not least, the brain’s expectation for tender influxes was cited, pointing out that its absence leads to a lack of brain patterns that guide our moral decision-making with reference to altruism and hence emotions and thus the ability to make decisions. The group in general was impressed by the ability of scientists to see these activities of the brain physically. The member who brought up the above pointed out that studies in New York had shown that abortion of unwanted children affected the crime rate positively by reducing the number of abused children. This prompted some members to remark that it had been difficult to retain the expositions from real life (case histories, etc.) that the book was littered with, useful though they were.

Asked for an opinion, a member pointed out at no matter how we made our decisions, we cannot choose our parents. And that the ‘emotional’side of our brain surely improved with age – practice, experience, etc. Then there was also the physiological side, which the book had not explored, such as the loss of water in the brain with age. Another member agreed that as in the examples which cited brain pattern recognition we must be getting closer to a material understanding of how our brain works – something not available forty to fifty years ago. Someone else then pointed out that there must be other theories on how our brain works, which perhaps we should have read together. This prompted the remark that besides parents, age, etc. there was the factor of other people and their influence on how we decide. This brought the group around to discussing the influence of political parties, ideologies, religions and, as the book points out, of marketing on how we decide. With reference to the last one member remarked on the examples in the book showing how even a phrase could be reworded so that it is more positive and, therefore, accepted.

This brought up the examples in the book that referred to teaching; the different effects praise had and allowing pupils to make mistakes. This latter was linked to the exposition in the book that before neurons can succeed they must repeatedly fail, as the case studies with schools confirmed. Praise without prior failure brought about a lowering of goals to ensure (unfounded) superiority.

The run of discussion now brought up an example where a plant manager who was a woman in a strongly male environment was able to think outside of the box and solve a production problem. The member who cited the example proposed that she was able to take the correct decision because possibly she felt under greater pressure than a man would have. In turn this brought up the question of how important training programs are; an extreme example being the military, as a result of which ‘the training kicks in’ where left to his own devices an individual might prefer flight to fight. In other words, the plant manager in question must have been well-trained since a good plant-manager always keeps logistics in mind. The discussion then advanced to the ability to think for oneself. It was agreed after sometime that in order to apply the Rule Book – assuming there was one, such as taught in training – one needed to know it fully, otherwise one would also not be able to know instinctively (intuitively, emotionally…) that it did not apply and one needed to come up with a new solution. As one member pointed out, however, the book keeps reminding that one needs the ability to think in the first place – the ability to make ‘an executive decision’.

The discussion then switched briefly to whether or not as the book claims morality is hard-wired. One suggestion was that as survival of the species is biologically paramount, it might follow that killing others of the same species is a biological and hence moral no-no. The qualifying objection to that was the example Lehrer gives with regard lack of emotion and the resultant inability to associate with or understand another human being’s pain.

In the final analysis, the group agreed that family upbringing, schooling and culture (specifically religion), not to mention political affiliation, all influence how our decision making process. Otherwise, as one member, pointed out we would not be discussing if Iran and Israel, for instance, would have a go at each other.

Azis Başan

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