Thinking about how we think. That’s the gist of Jonah Lehrer’s book, “How We Decide.”
I’ve read books in the past about how the brain works. What the amygdala does, what the prefrontal cortex does, and so on. They’ve all been rather clinical, dry in nature. Certainly not engaging. In surprising contrast, Lehrer has not only crafted a book on the topic of the brain and it’s constituent parts, he also puts it all in context of our daily lives.
Going all the way back to Plato’s day, and following through Freud, there has been the expectation that man is a rational beast, beset by uncontrolled emotion. But Plato, and Freud, had it backward. Plato’s own analogy, used to put forward his way of thinking, is more correct: Our Brains are of two parts. Emotions being the wild horses pulling the chariot, with rationality being the chariotsman keeping rein on them.
Modern science advancements have given us the ability to look into the brain in real time, as humans think. When asked different questions, or different thoughts are triggered, distinctly different parts of the brain fire up.
What has been discovered is that we have a number of distinct functional components in our brains. Emotions, morality, rationality, to name a few, are all very distinct.
“If you want to understand the function of scissors, then you have to look at both blades simultaneously.”
This is exactly how Jonah approaches how we decide. Not just by looking at parts, but by how the parts work together. And, realizing the brain is an argument.
Using a popular theme from my own life, consider being a new motorcyclist. If you take it easy, consciously thinking about what you need to do, you can have a successful trip from point A to B. Basic thoughts like, do I use the front or rear brake, or together, for this next curve? Where do I put myself in the lane so as to make sure I’m seen, to be sure I have an exit route? Do I raise the kickstand and then start the engine, or the other way around? These are conscious thoughts on the rational side of your brain.
The emotional side of your brain operates on past experience, lessons learned. With more time in the saddle, the individual activities you consciously thought through before begin to transfer into the emotional side of your brain. Now, as you approach a curve, you’re no longer thinking about what you need to do—you just do it.
It turns out, that much of the thinking we do when faced with complex problems, such smoothly riding a motorcycle through some curves, are done with the emotional side of the brain. This part of the brain makes evaluations without our even being aware of it. It is why we often cannot explain why we ‘feel’ something is right. It just is.
There are times where more deliberation, more conscious thought is necessary. We use the prefrontal cortex, the rational side of the brain, to monitor our thinking, to evaluate our emotions. We would not want to trust our gut when buying a car. Our emotions are useful, we subconsciously evaluate all the myriad variables, yet we use the rational side to think through the process. Rather than get that cool convertible, we deliberate how correct the answer is. Maybe we need a SUV for towing our motorcycles:).
The brain is a finely balanced machine though. If we over-deliberate, over analyze our actions, we can begin to ‘choke’. Many of us have experienced choking at some point. It’s where we second-guess ourselves; we start thinking through previously ‘unthought’ actions. For instance, an experienced rider has a scare, and then starts thinking-through each curve afterward. The result is often scalloped-looking curves, inconsistent throttle and braking control, and if bad enough, fright and sweaty palms.
Decisions made using past experience relies on the unconscious, emotional part of the brain. We do something ‘automatically.’ Something new, for which no past experience exists, needs to be consciously deliberated, using the rational part of the brain.
How We Decide has innumerable applications for everyday life. I encourage you, whether a golfer, musician, business leader, or motorcyclist, to read the book. You might find it worthwhile to spend some time thinking, about your thinking.