Book Review: Jonah Lehrer and How we Decide

A few weeks ago, Sci was lucky enough to receive the latest book from Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide, in the mail! Well, ok, Sci is receiving a LOT of things in the mail. Ever since I went on and on about how much I love getting free books…I get a lot of free books. A lot of heavy science books. Now, don’t get me wrong, Sci loves reading science. But it can get to be…a bit much. Perhaps someday Sci will share with all of you (who I am sure are all PANTING to know) the list of books that Sci is reading which are not science-related. But the science books, the piles of science books, how they do beckon.
But anyway, ONWARD.
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Sci was really thrilled to get a copy of Jonah’s book, she’d been lusting after one for a while. All I have to do now is come across a copy of “Proust was a Neuroscientist” and I’ll have the complete Jonah set! (*cough cough Jonahsendmeacopyofyourbook cough cough*)


When I first picked up the book, I was…a little annoyed. Jonah’s writing style is poppy, full of snappy sentences and catchy phrases. But then I realized, hey wait, this is good writing! It’s not convoluted and long like official science writing. It’s not in the passive voice! It doesn’t exude a painful condescension! I think I counted four semicolons in the entire book! I settled back to enjoy myself.
Like Jonah’s blog, The Frontal Cortex, How We Decide doesn’t disappoint. It’s a light, informative, read, or at least as light and informative as you can get while discussing the ins and outs of decision-making in the human brain.
Jonah is a great writer for the “lay” scientist, for someone who may not be a hardcore neuroscientist, but wants to know generally about neuroscience and decision making. His explanations are easy to understand, and involve a lot of real life examples to help people understand what goes on in the brain every time we make a decision, a task we perform hundreds of times per day, and which can range from something as simple as picking which brand of bread, to something as complex as saving the world from nuclear disaster like James Bond.
So what does decision making involve? As I’m sure you can guess, it’s a competition between the “rational” brain (areas of the prefrontal cortex), and the “emotional” brain (areas such as the amygdala and ventral striatum). Throughout the centuries, philosophers and scientists have wondered why we make the decisions we do. Most of them have come to the conclusion that when we screw up, the emotional brain is to blame. Philosophers since Plato have told us that, to become the best possible human being, we need to swallow our pride along with the rest of our emotions, and allow reason to reign supreme in our decision making process.
But modern research, and Jonah, say differently. It turns out that our emotional brain can sometimes make a better decision than our rational brain. There are cases when going with your gut can really produce the best outcome.
But which situation is which? In which scenario do you need your rational brain, and in which your emotional brain? And when should the two work together? Jonah uses many examples in this book to let you know which decisions go best with the gut (like picking bread) and which may require some fast, rational decision making.
The book is full of interesting scenarios and recounts of experiments. There are only two things I would ask of it.
1) Pictures!!!! I want pictures! There were a couple of things I think could have used some diagrams, and what is a book, after all, with no pictures or conversation?
2) While there are lots of scenarios, and they are all interesting, many of them emotional, a couple of them remain incomplete. What happened to the girl who’s brain tumor drastically changed her behavior? Was the professional backgammon player a success? How does one explain Tom Brady’s sad performance in the Super Bowl in 2008? Dang it, Jonah, give Sci some closure! 🙂
But these are minor points. Overall, it’s a comprehensive and understandable review of the latest and greatest in the neuroscience of decision making. Highly recommended!
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3 Responses

  1. I am really looking forward to reading this one, it’s come highly recommended by several people (well, ok, just two – but they were people I respect) and now you. Though I don’t know – I’m not one to settle well without closure and it sounds like Jonah really leaves us hanging…
    An aside, I wish I could get more free books!!! Not that I should complain, having been sent a few (ok, more than a few), but I think I need to make it out bigger here. Maybe – just maybe, I should actually hint to my readers that I really love to get books in the mail.

  2. His article in the front of Wired this month rocked, and that convinced me to add his book to my short list. Perhaps he will tie up the loose ends on his blog.

  3. I recommend Jonah’s book alot lately. It’s one of the best books on the topic. My latest book takes similar research and applies it to web design. Let me know your mailing address and I’ll send a copy of Neuro Web Design: What makes them click? to you too!

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