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Most great stories revolve around decisions: the snap brilliance of Captain Sullenberger choosing to land his plane in the Hudson, or Dorothea’s prolonged, agonizing choice of whether to forsake her husband for true love in “Middlemarch,” or your parents’ oft-told account of the day they decided to marry. There is something powerfully human in the act of deliberately choosing a path; other animals have drives, emotions, problem-solving skills, but none rival our capacity for self-consciously weighing all the options, imagining potential outcomes and arriving at a choice. As George W. Bush might have put it, we are a species of deciders.

Jonah Lehrer’s engaging new book, “How We Decide,” puts our decision-making skills under the microscope. At 27, Lehrer is something of a popular science prodigy, having already published, in 2007, “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” which argued that great artists anticipated the insights of modern brain science. “How We Decide” tilts more decisively in the thinking-­person’s self-help direction, promising not only to explain how we decide, but also to help us do it better.

This is not exactly uncharted terrain. Early on, Lehrer introduces his main theme: “Sometimes we need to reason through our options and carefully analyze the possibilities. And sometimes we need to listen to our emotions.” Most readers at this point, I suspect, will naturally think of Malcolm Gladwell’s mega-best-seller “Blink,” which explored a similar boundary between reason and intuition. But a key difference between the two books quickly emerges: Gladwell’s book took an external vantage point on its subject, drawing largely on observations from psychology and sociology, while Lehrer’s is an inside job, zooming in on the inner workings of the brain. We learn about the nucleus accumbens, spindle cells and the prefrontal cortex. Many of the experiments he recounts involve fMRI scans of brains in the process of making decisions (which, for the record, is a little like making a decision with your head stuck in a spinning clothes dryer).

Explaining decision-making on the scale of neurons makes for a challenging task, but Lehrer handles it with confidence and grace. As an introduction to the cognitive struggle between the brain’s “executive” rational centers and its more intuitive regions, “How We Decide” succeeds with great panache, though readers of other popular books on this subject (Antonio Damasio’s “Descartes’ Error” and Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence,” for example) will be familiar with a number of the classic experiments Lehrer describes.

In part, the neuroscience medicine goes down so smoothly because Lehrer introduces each concept with an arresting anecdote from a diverse array of fields: Tom Brady making a memorable pass in the 2002 Super Bowl; a Stanford particle physicist nearly winning the World Series of Poker; Al Haynes, the Sully of 1989, making a remarkable crash landing of a jetliner whose hydraulic system had failed entirely. The anecdotes are, without exception, well chosen and artfully told, but there is something in the structure of this kind of nonfiction writing that is starting to feel a little formulaic: startling mini-narrative, followed by an explanation of What the Science Can Teach Us, capped by a return to the original narrative with some crucial mystery unlocked. (I say this as someone who has used the device in my own books.) It may well be that this is simply the most effective way to convey these kinds of ideas to a lay audience. But part of me hopes that a writer as gifted as Lehrer will help push us into some new formal technique in future efforts.

A book that promises to improve our decision-making, however, should be judged on more than its narrative devices. The central question with one like “How We Decide” is, Do you get something out of it? It’s fascinating to learn about the reward circuitry of the brain, but on some basic level, we know that we seek out rewards and feel depressed when we don’t get them. Learning that this process is modulated by the neurochemical dopamine doesn’t, on the face of it, help us in our pursuit of those rewards. But Lehrer’s insights, fortunately, go well beyond the name-that-neurotransmitter trivia. He’s insightful and engaging on “negativity bias” and “loss aversion”: the propensity of the human brain to register bad news more strongly than good. (Negativity bias, for instance, explains why in the average marital relationship it takes five compliments to make up for a single cutting remark.) He has a wonderful section on creativity and working memory, which ends with the lovely epigram: “From the perspective of the brain, new ideas are merely several old thoughts that occur at the exact same time.”

For this reader, though, the most provocative sections of “How We Decide” involve sociopolitical issues more than personal ones. A recurring theme is how certain innate bugs in our decision-­making apparatus led to our current financial crisis. We may be heavily “loss averse,” but only in the short run: a long list of experiments have shown that completely distinct parts of the brain are activated if the potential loss lies in the mid- or long-term future, making us more susceptible to the siren song of the LCD TV or McMansion. So many of the financial schemes that led us astray over the past decade exploit precisely these defects in our decision-making tools. “Paying with plastic fundamentally changes the way we spend money, altering the calculus of our financial decisions,” Lehrer writes. “When you buy something with cash, the purchase involves an actual loss — your wallet is literally lighter. Credit cards, however, make the transaction abstract.” Proust may have been a neuroscientist, but so were the subprime mortgage lenders. These are scientific insights that should be instructive to us as individuals, of course, but they also have great import to us as a society, as we think about the new forms of regulation that are going to have to be invented in the coming years to prevent another crisis.

“How We Decide” has one odd omission. For a book that plumbs the mysteries of the emotional brain, it has almost nothing to say about the decisions that most of us would conventionally describe as “emotional.” We hear about aviation heroism and poker strategies, and we hear numerous accounts of buying consumer goods. But there’s barely a mention of a whole class of choices that are suffused with emotion: whether to break up with a longstanding partner, or to scold a disobedient child, or to let an old friend know that you feel betrayed by something he’s said. For most of us, I suspect, these are the decisions that matter the most in our lives, and yet “How We Decide” is strangely silent about them. Perhaps Jonah Lehrer will use his considerable talents to tackle these most human of decisions in another volume. Until then, we’ve still got ­“Middlemarch.”

Steven Johnson
New York Times