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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 2 April 2010

"The Decisive Moment" by Jonah Lehrer

Lehrer is a neuroscientist who wrote Proust was a neuroscientist. He also writes a blog called The Frontal Cortext

His essential thesis in this book is that we are not the rational beings that we like to think we are, nor can we be. Our emotions are essential to us being able to make decisions and to make the right decisions. Many micro decisions are made faster than we can think (for example a batsman hitting a cricket ball that was bowled at a speed that makes it impossible to react by thinking. These decisions are made by our subconscious which has learnt how to make the right decisions based on long practise. He gives the example of a radar operator during the Gulf War who spotted a blip on his screen moving towards an aircraft carrier. The blip was moving in the same place and at the same speed as a friendly plane; nevertheless he took the decision to shoot it down. Later it was found to have ben a missile. No analysis of the tapes could provide evidence of why his hunch had been correct; his decision was made essentially on his gut feeling. But later it was realised that the blip had first appeared 3 sweeps of the radar later than a normal plane and it had been this (and the hours of staring at radar screens) that had aroused the fearful feelings in his subconscious.

But Lehrer also provides examples of situations where rationality has conquered emotions (thank goodness), for example the firefighter who, realising that he couldn't outrun a fire, decided to set the hillside in front of him alight and then lie down on the smouldering remains, thereby creating his own firebreak. Then there was the pilot whose plane lost all hydraulic control to ailerons, flaps, undercarriage, everything. The only way he could steer the plane was to fire the two engines at differential rates. He worked this out by a process of careful rational thought while the plane was falling through the air.

Things I learned and linked with:
  • The Dweck experiments in which students praised for their intelligence on a first test chose easier subsequent tests and scored worse on a final test than matched students praised for the efforts on the first test who chose harder intervening tests and therefore challenged themselves and learned faster. (p5-57)
  • A quote from Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics: "Anyone can become angry, that is easy. But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy." (p107)
  • ADHD as a manifestion of the retarded development of the pre-frontal cortex which renders the sufferer unable to resist the temptation for immediate gratification. During adolescence the pre-frontal cortex of an ADHD sufferer can be 3.5 years behind 'normal'; however they usually catch up by the end of adolesence. Teenagers find it hard to resist temptation if the consequences are delayed; the solution may be to make the consequences immediate. "When West Virginia revoked driving permits for for students who were under the age of 18 and who dropped out of school, the dropout rate fell by one-third in the first year." p113
  • 'Choking' happens when you start to think about an action that has moved into the unconscious competence arena, like a golf player who starts thinking about the swing that has become natural to him. Moving something back from unconscious competence into conscious competence means that the rational mind starts to interfere with processes that have been filed away into the subconscious; this causes mistakes. p135
  • Too much information can distract and confuse experts who have learned to act using instinct. "College counselors were given a vast array of information about a group of high school students. The counselors were then asked to predict the grades of these kids during their freshmen year in college. The counselors had access to high school transcripts, test scores, the results of personality and vocational tests and application essays from the students. They were even granted personal interviews .... The counselors were competing against a rudimentary mathematical formula composed of only two variables: the high school grade point average of the student and his or her score on a single standardized test .... the predictions made by the formula were far more accurate than the predictions made by the counselors .... While the extra information considered by the counselors made them extremely confident, it actually led to worse predictions." p155 This makes me think of our sixth form interviews!
  • "Being certain means that you aren't worried about being wrong." p202
  • There are two types of thinkers: hedgehogs and foxes (there is a Greek saying that the fox knows many thinfs but the hedgehog knows one big thing). Hedgehogs are certain. They ignore contrary information. "The fox relies on the solvent of doubt. He is skeptical of grand strategies and unifying theories." p231
  • CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) is the training programme that tries to convince air cockpit crew to dissent from the view of the pilot. p242-3. Using it during cardiac surgery at Nebraska Medical Centre has raised the percentage of 'uneventful' surgeries from 21% to 62%.
A fascinating book, not as magisterial as Irrationality but a quick light read through the mechanisms of decision.

April 2010; 247 pages

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