For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘neuroscience

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, 302 pp.

How we decideI read this on an airplane, and it was great non-fiction airplane material. Not too light to fly through, not so heavy it required silence to concentrate. It was another impulse buy at the YMCA used book sale.

How We Decide is mostly pop science and pop psychology, with a hint of business and self-improvement thrown in. Lehrer examines the latest neuroscience studies about what parts of the brain are active in decision-making, and the difference between acting based on feelings or on rational thought. He also carefully examines which kinds of decisions are most successful when made with one part of the brain or the other, or both. Lehrer’s book bears a resemblance to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, and even cites some of the same neuroscience studies. However, he pursues a different question. Gladwell tracks the value of snap judgments. Lehrer looks at both gut reactions and careful analytic decisions, and the differences between them.

Lehrer takes apart the classic distinction between decisions based on emotion and those based on reason. The West has always privileged reason over emotion. However, modern research has proven that all decisions require some element of both. We cannot make decisions–even simple ones–if the emotional part of our brain is shut down. Lehrer writes, “Our emotions are deeply empirical.” Dopamine neurons teach our brain to respond based on past experiences–they program our emotional reactions based on all our prior decisions and their effects, right or wrong, which means that sometimes our emotions know better than our minds. Although Lehrer does not explore this territory, I could not help but imagine all the ways this same brain research explains the deep patterns formed by our childhood experiences. Our family life in the early years sets up patterns and expectations that forever mark our emotional reactions to the world.

However, emotional decisions are not always the best ones. Lehrer explores those decisions that are best made from emotional responses, those best made from reason, and those best made by a combination of the two. He explores loss aversion (bad is stronger than good, a loss hurts worse than a gain feels good), executive control (the ability to analyze your emotions and impulses), overthinking (analyzing too much can lead to a poor decision), and morality (altruism, generosity and kindness). He has a range of examples from quarterbacks in the pocket to soap opera casting directors to gamblers to military members watching radar for missile attacks. In the end, he concludes that the brain functions best as an argument–that emotion and reason must contest with one another, and it is the contest that yields the best decisions.

The book was fascinating, and I can imagine using many of the neuroscience studies and their insights–as well as Lehrer’s examples–as sermon illustrations for a variety of scriptures.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain, Crown, 2012, EPUB file (368 pages in paperback).

quietI did much better in my second choice for an e-book. I had been curious to read Quiet since it was published and I had heard multiple good reports about it from friends and from NPR. As an introvert myself, I was intrigued by the popularity of this book. I have read plenty of things about the differences between being an introvert and an extrovert, so I wasn’t that interested in discovering more about what it’s like to be me.

What is unique about Cain’s book are the new studies from neuroscientists about the brain patterns of introverts, and her analysis of the privileging of extroverted behavior in our culture. Cain begins with identifying what she calls the “Extrovert Ideal,” which she traces to the beginning of the 20th century. The Culture of Character (which valued seriousness, hard work, discipline and honor) became replaced by a Culture of Personality.

When they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who are bold and entertaining. “The social role demanded of all in the new Culture of Personality was that of a performer,” (Warren) Susman famously wrote. “Every American was to become a performing self.” (21)

Leadership and social capital now comes from likability and gregariousness. Cain uses the self-help culture influenced by Dale Carnegie and the culture at Harvard Business School as primary examples of how we privilege extroversion and extroverted behavior. She then proceeds to make the case for the values introverts bring to the table–especially a capacity for new and innovative ideas.

New research shows that groups working together are not nearly as creative as individuals left to work alone. Open workplaces, group brainstorming and team retreats are not effective at producing innovative ideas, because a person (introvert or extrovert) needs space to think alone before thinking with the group. She also examines the way Asian culture still values more introverted traits, and what the experience of Asians in America is around those concerns. Introverts process dopamine differently than extroverts, which means they feel less “buzz” in response to stimuli. That means they tend to be “cool” and guided by inner rewards rather than external ones. This means they can bring perspective, patience and measured reactions to an organization.

The style of Quiet reminded me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell’s work, with its quick and compelling prose and vast approach to the subject, ranging from neuroscience to popular culture to business to personal interviews. It was an enjoyable and entertaining read, with some ideas I may be able to take with me.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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  • Graham: Thank you for writing about Susan Howatch. I like it that she is described as a mesmerising story-teller on front of book, and I do agree. I had long
  • revjmk: Tammy, I'm not sure the "he" you are referring to here (Willimon, Hauerwas or me--who goes by the pronoun "she"). I'm also not sure why you think th
  • Tammy Sanders: Has no one noticed he has the 10 commandments wrong. 1. You shall have no other Gods before me. 2. You shall make no images. 3. Don’t take th

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