Jonah Lehrer: Brain Science for the Rest of Us

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Jonah Lehrer. (47 minutes, 22 mb mp3)

The joy of reading Jonah Lehrer is that he’s scientist enough to navigate oceans of brain-science lab reports. He knows the neural pathways where Blink meets Nudge. But he’s literature bug and humanist enough to remember that the proper study of man, as Alexander Pope had it, is you and me, the whole of Us.

Lehrer’s first triumph, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, made the case for art in an age of science. On the mystery of consciousness, he wrote: “It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.”

His new book How We Decide, which reads like a sequel, is a set of cautionary tales about the limits of the rational brain, that peculiarly human pre-frontal cortex, and by implication the limits of rational science. It is not reason — certainly not reason alone — that tells quarterback Tom Brady which receiver should get the pass, or that tells the pilot of a disabled plane how to land it. It’s not even reason that brings the best of our human gifts into balance. Lehrer quotes G. K. Chesterton: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”

Jonah Lehrer identifies himself with the modern doctor who tells you not to choose the MRI for your lower back pain but to study patience, or perhaps Yoga, instead. Not only have MRIs not solved the problem of back pain. “In fact, the new technology has probably made the problem worse. The machine simply sees too much. Doctors are overwhelmed with information and struggle to distinguish the significant from the irrelevant… This is the danger of too much information: it can actually interfere with understanding.”

Most of us read too little or too much about the booming brain sciences. If you’re going to sit down and talk with just one enthusiast who’s wise beyond his years, I’d make it Jonah Lehrer:

The body that knows better than the brain

One of the great themes of modern neuroscience is that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; that the brain knows much more than we know; that we’re always taking in all this information which allows us to swing at fastballs and find the open man in three and a half seconds before we’re sacked, and choose which cereal to buy in the supermarket. All of our decisions are shaped by these emotional signals, which is why when we get cut off from these emotional signals people become pathologically indecisive. That said, one of the other great themes of decision-making sciences in the last couple of decades – going back to Kahnemann and Tversky and lots of recent work in neuro-economics – is that as wise as the emotional brain is, as profoundy intuitive as it can be, the fact that it knows more than we know, it can also be incredibly dumb, incredibly idiotic; and it’s all about the situation. You can put the same brain mechanism which can be so wise on the football field and all of a sudden you have it pick stocks, or figure out which mortgage to get, and it could make the worst decision possible. So one of the things I tried to do in this book was construct a model of decision-making that wasn’t all about: We should always blink and trust our gut – or always be rational like homo economicus. But to say: the way you make decisions should depend on the kind of decision you’re making. That you have to begin with the situation, diagnose the situation, be pragmatic about it. And then work backwards from that and try to tailor your thought process, which we’re capable of doing, to the situation at hand.

Jonah Lehrer with Chris Lydon in Boston, February 23, 2009

There are surprising connections here to the Adam Smith you never knew, to 2/28 mortgages, to the war in Afghanistan, to William and Henry James, the folly of credit cards and the novelists Ian McEwen and Richard Powers. Listen to all of it, please, and leave a comment here.

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  • mattheww

    Fantastic conversation.

  • Sounds a lot like the opening lines of Nietzsche’s ‘On the Genealogy of Morality’: “We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers, we ourselves, to ourselves…we are not ‘knowers’ when it comes to ourselves…” seems especially true today, after spending the last 8 years listening to experts separate good guys from bad guys, still lost in a ‘global war on terror’ against a condition of insecurity (we are unknown to ourselves).

  • nother

    I find this new genre of practical neuroscience – and this conversation – to be very interesting and I look forward to the road ahead. I have a feeling though, as we travel further down into this dark mine of the mind and light our matches, what will ultimately be reveled to us – through the flickering flame – are but shadows on the wall of our brains.

    I prefer to confer with old man Socrates outside in the reason-able light of day, and defer to his admonition that we should follow the “noble” and “good” virtue of Temperance.

    We can save some energy by going back to the future. For instance in this conversation we talked a lot about free-will, and self-critique, and human avarice, ext. All of this can fall under the Plato’s umbrella of temperance. Self-control is the thing.

    “A temperate state is a well ordered state.”

    -Plato’s “Charmides”

    “Whereas true love is a love of beauty and order – temperate and harmonious.”

    -Plato’s “The Republic”

    In our temperate state, things will be simplified, including our decision making.

  • T. Diddy

    A fascinating and enjoyable conversation that I will have to listen to at least once more to fully appreciate.

    It seems that trying to understand the human mind by examinig neurons synapses and axons is as difficult as enjoying a digital image by looking at it pixal by pixal, but , as you do, you can come to better understand the product of their intergrated functions.

    As I have a personal motive to understand brain function, I can hardly wait to read his books.

    What a great interview.