A Conversation With Jonah Lehrer

The 27-year-old author of 'How We Decide,' a highly readable book about what recent advances in brain research tell us about the way human beings make up their minds

Jonah Lehrer says the idea for his new book came from his own difficulty in deciding which breakfast cereal to buy.

"There I was, aimlessly wandering the cereal aisle... trying to choose between the Apple Cinnamon and Honey Nut varieties" of Cheerios, he writes in an afterword to "How We Decide" (Houghton Mifflin; 256 pages; $25). His curiosity about his time-wasting indecision helped Lehrer realize he wanted to understand how people make judgments - from which flavor of Cheerios to purchase to whether a naval intelligence officer should order the shooting down of an unidentified blip on a radar screen.

Lehrer, 27, is well-equipped to write on the topic. A Los Angeles native, he studied science and English as an undergraduate at Columbia University, where he also worked in the neuroscience lab of Eric Kandel, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize for his work on the science of memory. But Lehrer says he was a "very bad scientist," and so he turned in his lab coat for a reporter's notebook and began writing science journalism.

"How We Decide" follows an earlier book, "Proust Was a Neuroscientist," in which Lehrer proposed that several artists, including the eponymous author who imagined the flood of associative memories evoked simply by the taste of a French cookie, had an intuitive understanding of complex neurological processes. Some of these discoveries were confirmed by scientists many years later, after substantial empirical study.

In the current work, Lehrer combines compelling stories of dramatic situations, in which people have made sometimes fateful decisions, with explanations gleaned only recently from laboratories about which sections of the brain are involved in different types of reactions and judgments. By using MRI scanners, scientists have learned, for example, that excessive pressure on the prefrontal cortex can cause someone to behave like a sex maniac and that an excess of dopamine can turn a person into a chronic gambler. No less significant, though, is Lehrer's suggestion that awareness of how the brain responds to certain stimuli can also help people override certain automatic reactions, a refreshing refutation of a deterministic view that sees the brain as little more than a machine that functions according to the rules of physics and chemistry, and is therefore ultimately knowable. Lehrer spoke with Haaretz by phone from his home in Boston.


One of the most surprising suggestions in your book is that complex decisions can best be made by relying on intuition rather than straight logic.

It is definitely counterintuitive that it is the very difficult problems that benefit most from the unconscious processing. But preliminary research has shown that when we try to take these complex problems and treat them as rational puzzles, we make more mistakes. We treat unimportant variables as very important things. This shows us the sheer limitations of the rational brain. As someone who has always seen himself as rational, empirical, deliberate, that struck me as counterintuitive, even disconcerting. For example, in one chapter I discuss the [physicist and] poker champion Michael Binger, who can count cards, but has also taught himself how, when the stakes are very high, to trust his sweaty palms. In other words, it's the really hard decisions − those ambiguous hands where the cards and probabilities aren't clear − that most benefit from the processing power of the emotional brain.

Your book is not just an update from the neuroscience frontier, but in a modest way is something of a how-to guide for making decisions.

For the first time, I think neuroscience is becoming a practical science. We studied memory in fruit flies, and learned about synaptic proteins in their tiniest details, meaning the chemistry of the brain. But now, we're finally able to begin applying what's been learned. As a writer, this interested me. It seemed that we were beginning to fulfill this timeless quest for a science of human nature, as Hume put it.

Part of a chapter deals with Israel's intelligence failure in the prelude to the Yom Kippur War, how the "konseptzia," a fixed idea of what would need to happen before Egypt would be ready to go to war with Israel, caused the top political and military echelon to ignore very obvious signs that the country was about to be attacked. Were you illustrating the way intelligent people's decision-making abilities short-circuited, or were you suggesting that the entire Israeli leadership was a metaphor for the brain?

I think the story of the Yom Kippur War works on both levels. It highlights the imperfect decision making of several individuals. But it is also a metaphor for the brain and for the argument that is always going on in our head. Different brain areas are taking in different things and processing them in different ways, and then spewing out answers. The challenge is whether we can listen to all these different answers and not just impose a solution from the top down.

If we do that, we tend to fall into what psychologists call "the certainty trap," which is where we filter the world and the facts to confirm what we already believe. I also wanted - although this got taken out during the book's editing - to contrast what Israel did after '73 with what the United States did after 9/11.

After the 9/11 attacks, America imposed a top-down system on its intelligence services, with a single head of intelligence to whom everything is filtered down. The idea was to merge all the bureaucracies, and to lower the possibility for dissent. There may have been good reasons for that - for example, the need to overcome a long-standing rivalry between the FBI and the CIA - but it also lowered the possibility for different perspectives being heard or considered. In the Iraq war, you saw how an entire infrastructure became fixed on one idea, that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was dissent, but it was stifled. This is a textbook example of the certainty trap.

In Israel, on the other hand, the intelligence reforms after the Yom Kippur intelligence failure took the opposite approach, and introduced a new intelligence body that was designed to offer another independent analysis of the facts and information, so that there was more dissent and more disagreement.

You're Jewish, you write about Israel, and you have family here. What do you have to say about the decision-making processes that seem to cause Jews and Arabs to keep repeating their mistakes, year after year, and keep inflicting so much suffering on their peoples?

It's very presumptuous of me to even comment, but this is something I've thought about. I have a chapter in the book about moral decisions, and about the assumption of many that humans are like Hobbesian brutes. In fact, what has been discovered, as I write, is that our inner instincts teach us to be sympathetic, and to feel pain when we see that someone else is in pain. There's an evolutionary reason for having an intuitive empathy with people, because we have to live in groups. The bad news is how easy it is to turn off these feelings. They are easy to manipulate and to turn off.

To me, the poignant irony of the Middle East, if you look at it through the hardwired-emotions prism, is that you have these two peoples who have lived together for thousands of years, and that they learned not to suffer when the other suffers. I should say that I don't think this is true in any way except on a mass societal level. I don't think that individual Israelis, for example, don't think about the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza. Of course they do. But the brain can rationalize away the most primal of moral emotions. The Holocaust is by far the most stark example of this.

Germany was the most rational of societies, the society of Kant, Wagner and Nietzsche, yet on a mass level, could brush aside the most fundamental feelings we have as human beings, because they came up with a theory about why these people, the Jews, were not in fact human beings. And they developed ingenious mechanisms for making murder as impersonal as possible. This is an extreme example of how easy it is, given a charismatic dictator who is the incarnate of pure evil, to disregard suffering because we think someone deserves it. It becomes disturbingly easy for us to disregard the moral emotions that are meant to bind us together and not kill each other. It can turn us all into psychopaths.

The brain as it is becoming understood is shockingly complex, and seems purpose-built. Are you satisfied that evolution alone can explain how it developed?

You mean, is there an argument for intelligent design? That's above my pay grade. Look, the more we learn, the less we understand. Ten or 15 years ago, scientists assumed they would soon have a basic answer to the mind-body problem. Now we know that we have absolutely no idea, that we can't even pretend to know what questions to ask. I tend to believe that there will always be some persistent mystery, that we're not blessed with a big enough brain to understand how the brain works.

Reductionist science will never be able to understand human consciousness. If you want a reason for God, a mysterious space that science won't be able to touch, I think this is a good place to look, to understand how flesh gives rise to consciousness.

Has your decision making improved as a result of this book?

I've gotten a bit better. I'm still a mediocre decision maker when it comes to choosing toothpaste or cereal. But I have acknowledged that I'm a chronic overthinker, and so I've taught myself how to turn off my deliberate mind and learned how to listen to my emotional signals. It's certainly helped my poker game. But the larger point, I think, is simply realizing that there is no universal solution to the problem of decision making. I'm more attuned now to diagnosing decisions I'm forced to make. What kind of decision is this? I never really thought about that until I started talking to scientists about their research. I just assumed that the most rational decisions are the best.