In this election year, the majority of voters are split into two, irreconcilable political camps. Each camp is certain that its view of reality is right, logical and productive and that the other group is wrong, irrational and dangerous. These opposing dogmatic views inhibit cooperation for the common good at a time of national crisis. How have we come to this?
In his New York Times bestseller How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer describes how each person chooses what to believe and what to do. The bad news is that few of our beliefs or decisions are reasonable. Even worse, what we consider to be our rational beliefs are probably at odds with objective reality. Furthermore, our most logical decisions are likely to disappoint us.
Brains are evolved biological organs which make choices and construct memories. This book reveals how they operate. Brains make their best choices, as measured by numerous controlled experiments and long-term results, when they take into account emotions, memories, pleasure and pain centers, centers of empathy, and thousands of other subtle and undefined things. These centers compete for a variety of alternatives with varying intensities. This activity and competition have been measured by FMRI scans.
The brain is an ongoing, non-rational argument, which rapidly makes one compromised, partially satisfying choice after another. Our post-facto rational explanations for what we believe and what we do are, as Jonah Lehrer puts it, lawyers picking and choosing reasons that justify choices made in ways we don’t comprehend. They are often persuasive but seldom accurate.
After a brain makes a decision, its pre-frontal cortex sets out to whip other brain centers into shape. It conditions them to ignore data, which contradicts the choice. It alters memories to increase support for it. In short, it behaves like most Generals, Politicians, Popes and CEOs who systematically eliminate dissension and coerce support after they choose a course of action. The payoff for suppressing dissension, conflicting information and conflicting memories is a release of dopamine which produces a sense of pleasure and well being. Dopamine, not objectivity, guides our personal sense of rightness.
Reason is one of the last processes to evolve in the human brain. Consequently, it is one of the weakest. A healthy brain has thousands of other processes which enable people to be creative, playful, empathize with others and anticipate their reactions. Psychopaths and sociopaths are actually more rational than healthy people because they lack fear sensations from their amygdalae and empathy for the feelings of others from their mirror neurons. These emotionless Dr. Spocks of Star Trek are dangerous and malicious because certain, tiny, regions of their brains are damaged. The damage may be from physical causes or from emotional traumas, particularly abuse or isolation in early childhood. However, it isn’t repairable.
This might not be a comfortable book for those convinced that Christianity is the source of ethics and morals. Controlled and repeated experiments demonstrate that healthy brains have built in ethics and morals based on emotions and empathy for others; which the 10 Commandments and the New Testament merely codify, post-facto. Even healthy chimpanzees exhibit some ethical behaviors!
Jonah Lehrer’s colorful book is packed with relevant stories about airline pilots and football quarterbacks (and the rational, but useless tests the NFL employs to predict their performance) and a few well chosen metaphors. He worked as a technician in a neuroscience lab, but he is first and foremost a top-notch writer who knows how to make difficult scientific topics clear and fascinating. Chapter headings include: The Quarterback in the Pocket, The Predictions of Dopamine, Choking on Thought, The Moral Mind,The Brain is an Argument and The Poker Hand.
Link for more information on the book and its author: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/books/review/Johnson-t.html