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Decisions, decisions

MOST great stories revolve around decisions. The snap brilliance of Captain Sullenberger choosing to land his plane in the Hudson, 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 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 MRI 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 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.

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 a book that plumbs the mysteries of the emotional brain, it has almost nothing to say about "emotional" decisions. We hear about aviation heroism and poker strategies, but little about a whole class of choices suffused with emotion. These are the decisions that matter the most in our lives, and yet "How We Decide" is strangely silent about them.


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