Thoughts on Brain, Mind, and Thinking inspired by Lehrer’s “How We Decide”
Posted on 10 November 2010 by cjf
Although I have always been interested in the mind and thinking, I have been suspicious of psychology and the cognitive sciences. Recently, I’ve been impressed by several TED Talks that address new ideas in the sciences of the mind. These subjects are starting to provide valuable insights into how the world really works. It is still wise to be skeptical, but we might have made enough mistakes in psychology that we now have some groundwork upon which to start figuring out what is really going on in our heads.
So I was delighted with the chance to go into more depth in the science of decision making by reading Jonah Lehrer’s 2009 book How We Decide and participating in a discussion with the Ben Franklin Thinking Society. First, some overall impressions of the book. I thought Lehrer gave a good account of how the emotional brain works and some strengths and weaknesses in our decision making. I really value how he presents so many examples of experiences and experiments to illustrate the subject. His conclusion, though adequate, did not bring it altogether for me (cognitive dissonanace is a good thing and it helped me write this post!). Jeannie was turned off by Lehrer’s bone-chilling accounts of airplane crashes and psychopaths. However, we both learned a lot about the neuroscience of decision making. For me it was a good read, if not a great book.
One major omission from the book was the lack of a diagram showing the relationships among the brain regions discussed. Jeannie drew a rough sketch entitled Brain Turmoil below to give some sense of how the pieces fit.
Apparently, the brain uses dopamine-mediated “prediction” neurons to recognize patterns (a dopamine “high” if the pattern fits and a “low” if the pattern is “off”). This effect delivers our “feelings” to a decision making center in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). In Lehrer’s synthesis the brain considers these often conflicting signals from its various parts until it forms a decision. Jeannie’s designation Brain Turmoil is apt: chapter 7 is entitled “The Brain Is an Argument”.
As I re-read Lehrer’s text trying to pinpoint what emotions are, I found his description too vague. Still I synthesized this working hypothesis: emotions are the self-communicated feelings, intuitions, or instincts formed by dopamine-mediated pattern detection centers in the brain. This gives a nice concrete notion of the nature of emotions that seems to fit well enough with the text and my experience. Does anyone know a better characterization of emotions?
The message from the (sometimes excessively repetitive) middle part of the book is that both our “rational” and “emotional” brains can make serious mistakes. Lehrer recounts the emotional brain’s proclivity to find a pattern in any situation leading to grave errors whenever randomness is in play. For example, he explains the gamblers fallacy where one is rapturously deceived by occasional but completely random winnings leading to thoughts that “my turn has come” and the likelihood of bigger losses. He debunks the notion of streaks in sports citing the research of Gilovich, Vallone & Tversky that shows they are just random events that our brain misinterprets. There are more stories of this nature in the book. I had already encountered several from reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb which goes into great depth on this deficiency in the brain. Taleb details our weaknesses, but Lehrer also highlights some of our strengths and addresses how to make better decisions.
Our “rational” brains are also subject to serious mistakes. Lerher tells stories of “choking” when a skilled person blunders by too much thinking about what they “know” how to do. Philip Tetlock‘s research shows most pundit predictions are no better than random guessing, in part, because we are all subject to rationalization wherein we fit the story to our “mental models” (which are disparagingly known as biases). Apparently the most famous pundits tend to be the least accurate!
When I consider how easy it is to fool our brains, it becomes clear why our news media are so full of misinformation: our nucleus accumbens is thrilled by positive stories, our amygdala responds to negative stories, and the “experts” hew their confident but questionable theories. It leads to a thoroughly engaging presentation mostly filled with distracting poppycock! Similarly politics, which is just a once a year popularity contest, is hyped into grand battles on “the issues of the day” … “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Neuroscience helps us understand why we so easily get sucked into such nonsense.
But there is hope! Lehrer tells two great stories about how “mistake mystique” can help turn our error-prone brains into sound instruments of decision making. First, airline pilots undergo intense training to prepare for dangerous situations in flight simulators (practice!) and are trained to use crew resource management (CRM). The results of these pilot training initiatives have been dramatic: since the early 1990s pilot error has been reduced 71%! If only car drivers were subject to such good training practices, the roads might be made safe! Secondly, the story of Bill Robertie, two-time world champion in backgammon and a chess master, emphasizes the importance of the quality (not just the quantity) of practice in particular by focusing on and learning from your mistakes.
One point in Lerher’s account that I found particularly interesting is the strong support in cognitive science for Buckminster Fuller’s thesis that we only learn by trial and error. The stories in How We Decide, make clear that the argument in your brain needs lots of emotional input which is gathered by the trial and error work of “prediction neurons” plus the conscious process of thinking about thinking to hone your judgements. Mistake mystique is an essential part of thinking and learning!
Synergetics and Brain Science
Buckminster Fuller’s Synergetics is subtitled “Explorations in the Geometry of Thinking”. To me, Synergetics is a work that teaches how to think, but it does not have a prescription for thinking or decision making. It has a few interesting passages on the mind and thinking, such as, 509.00-31 Considerable Set and 502.01-25 Experience. Another very nice passage from Fuller’s essay “Guinnea Pig B” is recited by Jeannie in the video to the right. It makes me curious, does neuroscience know enough to map brain functions to Fuller’s concepts of “experience”, “generalized principles”, “brain” and “mind”? How do generalized principles work in the brain? Are they filters of rationalization or are they more associated with intuition or some of both? Can brain science describe the circuitry of Fuller’s mind/brain distinction? What is the psychology of experience?
In the second video, Cherie Clark describes a decision making process that she built on principles in Synergetics. Cherie has a knack for capturing the big picture and making it rememberable! Lehrer’s conclusion, on the other hand, simply advises one to use reason to solve simple or novel problems, embrace uncertainty, trust that your emotional brain knows more than you are aware of, and think about your thinking process. All valid and good advice. So Lehrer’s book with all its stories and examples is a good resource for improving your understanding and practice of decision making and thinking. But Cherie’s video explains how important it is to be “grounded” … to “see your situation clearly” and how to develop a comprehensive thought process. It is an eloquent example of how Synergetics provides tools for a deeper and more incisive system of thinking.
So what do you think?