Tag Archives: Neuroscience

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

28 Dec

After following Jonah’s very readable blog for a while I decided I had to read his book. His blog introduced the latest neuroscience and psychological research in a very clear and digestible form.

That Lehrer has been embroiled in controversy for recycling his own work, and using unreferenced quotes from others is well known, however that of course does not detract from the message of his book in any way.

It’s an easy read, that is not too in depth and covers a lot of ideas about how the mind works that I’ve read before. While it’s not as incisive and informative as his blog, it is still useful, and reinforced ideas in a practical way.

He starts by describing how we use intuition (the examples of a quarterback & chess were used). Calculating faster than a computer, we are able to subconsciously make a good decision, if we have trained ourselves enough. We’ll “feel” that something is right without knowing why, or even needing to know.

However it’s important to know when we can use this intuition: if it’s an area you know well, where you have experience, then let the intuition lead. However if the decision is in a area in which you have had little practice, then don’t rely on your subconscious – think it through consciously.

Our subconscious training can be tripped up. Choking is well known, especially in sports, for example golf. If someone who is expert in an area consciously tries to figure out the technicality of what they’re doing, say understanding the position of their shoulder or the angle of their elbow, then they can easily lose the ability to fluidly use their body. Rather they must think in more general terms, such as a smooth golf swing.

There’s another way we can decide whether it’s best to use our intuition or our conscious mind to figure something out: if some problem has about 5 variables then we should use our conscious mind (the frontal cortex), however if there are a lot more variables, we should soak them all in, focus on something completely unrelated for a few minutes, then come back and make a decision – in that case the subconscious is good at sorting through the key facts.

He points out that the brain is an advanced pattern matching machine. This is very powerful when we want to figure out how things work, or make quick decisions, but it can lead to problems – recognising a face in clouds is a simple example. Also superstitions, seeing ghosts, etc. are faults with the system.

He talks about how morals are subconscious and are justified post-hoc, and are often not often logical.

He covers what Pinker would call the functional mind, i.e. that different bits of the brain will argue with each other, and once they’ve made a decision, present the result to the conscious part of the brain. He advises becoming aware of the argument, and embracing uncertainty until a good decision is found.

To be honest, having read a lot of stuff in this subject area I found this a really basic book, but if you are new to reading about neuroscience and how the mind works, it’s an easy-to-read introduction that you could get through in a few quick hours.

The best conclusion from this book is that we can understand how we work, use our inbuilt skills when they are appropriate, and train ourselves to make better decisions.

The Body Has a Mind of Its Own by Matthew and Sandra Blakeslee

12 Jun

When I first saw the title of this book I thought it might be fluffy new age nonsense, but this is an insightful book, backed up with empirical evidence about how the brain and body work together.

It describes how the body and mind communicate, and how the different kinds of nerves work. For example, I didn’t know about proprioception so it was fascinating to learn that we have nerves in our joints and muscles that let us know the positions of our body parts in relation to others.

The book describes how the brain has different bits that are mapped to different parts of the body. You can see bits of the brain light up under fMRI scanners and the like, when people think about moving, or actually move, certain body parts.

It moves on to describe how tools, vehicles, bikes, etc. are incorporated into your body map, and as far as your brain is concerned, become a part of you. Ever notice how you duck when you drive under a bridge? And working the other way around, you can morph your body map to represent something in a virtual world, such as when playing a computer game. I’m sure you’ll have noticed when you’re moving a computer character with a controller you still try to help it along by moving your body.

It covers brain injuries, and missing limbs; of course the wonderful work of Vilayanur Ramachandran comes into play here. We see body maps getting muddled up and causing pro-sportsmen or musicians to forget how to do what they do, and ways around these problems using the theories in this area.

It shows how training doesn’t need to be physical; once you have a baseline of physical training, simply visualising your physical endeavour will make you better: from darts, to playing a musical instrument.

It also very interestingly describes why people have out-of-body experiences or see auras due to funny body maps that people have. Although people don’t really have such experiences, they perceive them due to body map issues.

Finally it looks at mirror neurons – the bits of your brain involved in empathy (though it’s worth noting that the existence of these is not universally accepted). It shows that when you watch others move, the same bits of the brain light up when you move, right up to the pre-motor cortex. It also dips its toe into the interesting waters of the boundary between you and others when you start to experience their emotions and feelings.

A well written and interesting read that gives a new perspective on how your mind and body work together.

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