Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Serious cardplaying and how we make up our damn minds! (Books - How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer & The Cardturner by Louis Sachar)

The two books I just finished share a theme. Both address the mechanisms and consequences of decision making and both use card playing as an example, but one is fiction and the other non-fiction.

Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide begins with the premise that the age-old preference for rationality over emotionality does not always lead to better decision-making. He introduces the roots of this notion with a 101 of Western thought - Plato, Ovid, Descartes, Thomas Jefferson, Immanuel Kant, and finally Sigmund Freud covered in about three pages, all leading up to:
The simple idea connecting Plato's philosophy to cognitive psychology is the privileging of reason over emotion. It's easy to understand why this vision has endured for so long. It raises Homo sapiens above every other animal: the human mind is a rational computer, a peerless processor of information. Yet it also helps explain away our flaws: because each of us is still part animal, the faculty of reason is forced to compete with primitive emotions... This theory of human nature comes with a corollary: if our feelings keep us from making rational decisions, then surely we'd be better off without any feelings at all. Plato, for example, couldn't help but imagine a utopia in which reason determined everything. Such a mythical society - a republic of pure reason - has been dreamed of by philosophers ever since.

But this classical theory is founded upon a crucial mistake. For too long, people have disparaged the emotional brain, blaming our feelings for all of our mistakes. The truth is far more interesting... If it weren't for our emotions, reason wouldn't exist at all.
Actually, we're all animal. Lehrer's book goes on to illustrate the value of the "emotional brain" over its alter-ego the "rational brain" with effective anecdotes, which first build a case for its superiority and then concede that effective decision making depends, in fact, upon the type and context of the decision and that really both are useful. Lehrer's writing strength is an apparent ease and fluidity that gives his work accessibility. Each chapter begins with an illustrative story that is unthreateningly situated in a non-scientific genre: aviation, football, poker, directing television, battlefield maneuvers, politics. This device almost becomes gimmicky but it is effective. Lehrer skirts defining what rational thought or emotion are - he assumes that if we all use the terms that we know what we mean. Often, the data he cites situates a brain process in a particular region of the brain and supports this with fMRI data. "Twinges of feeling" originate in the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex coordinates this visceral data into the stream of more rational measurements and out pops a decision - or something like that. He offers a brief summary of the evolutionary development of the human brain which, unlike our phylogenetic predecessors, does not merely rely on "instinct" but allows us to organize cognition, give symbolic expression to abstract thoughts and emotions, accumulate knowledge to invent novel solutions, and to think about our feelings and our thoughts giving us distinct advantages as well as liabilities:
This is why a cheap calculator can do arithmetic better than a professional mathematician, why a mainframe computer can beat a grand master at chess, and why we so often confuse causation with correlation. When it comes to the new parts of the brain, evolution just hasn't had time to work out the kinks.
It's also what gives us by-products like rumination and neuroticism but, hey, there's a cost for everything.  Evolution is a process without a planned end product, so its results don't exist without "kinks." However, one could say that our ability to prioritize data is superior to that of the computer. We calculate more slowly but we have the capacity to tell the important from the unimportant. We work on different scales and solve different problems, is all. Sometimes Lehrer's story telling can make things a bit mushy. For instance, in an example from baseball he offers the reader a batter unconsciously interpreting anticipatory clues from minute details he perceives in how the pitcher grips the ball, the angle of the wrist - these are then somehow "seamlessly converted" into a feeling about the pitch. He does not say how or by what structures. Do these feelings precede the prediction or are they the prediction? And by feelings does he mean the emotion that he has written about, or an unconscious calculation (which strikes me, rather, as rational thought).

Lehrer offers a good chapter on the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine in making predictions by pitting what has been learned about nature to what is being observed. He focuses to largely good effect on the anterior cingulate cortex and its role in error detection - a vital ingredient in our brain's ability to predict - offering clearly explained examples from a variety of scientific literature including not only anatomy but physiology, chemistry, and artificial intelligence, keeping the examples focused and the writing chatty. He connects these concretely to the role of practice in learning and both the behavioral and the neural necessity of experiencing the "unpleasant symptoms of being wrong" so that our brains can revise their model. This would seem to belie the fashionable over-reliance on constantly shoring up self-esteem at any cost in the name of learning.

Lehrer also offers a chapter on the disadvantages of "relying upon our dopamine neurons" (a physiological oversimplification) and how this makes us vulnerable to seeing patterns in nature even when they don't exist, producing our belief in fallacies like winning streaks.  He presents equally engaging examples from the worlds of basketball, gameshows, and economics and some of the classic work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. But Lehrer offers a frustrating example of loss aversion on the stock market which I believe he gets exactly wrong. His description of the neuroeconomics is fine, he just confuses probabilities calculated about the stock market in general with the likelihood of particular results for individual investors. It all very well to talk about the irrationality of investing in bonds because they give lower yields than stocks, but those probabilities are calculated over time for the entire market. Individual investors however purchase their investments on given days and must sell them on given days to achieve the benefits of their yield. Bonds may yield half of what stocks do in theory but in practice if you are retiring or must sell some of your shares to purchase a house or pay a large bill, you are stuck with the yield on that day. The reason to diversify ones portfolio is because the invidual's interaction with the market is actual not theoretical. If the stock market automatically yielded 8% for every investor regardless of timing and the bond market automatically yielded 4%, the brokers and advisers would be out of business!

Once covering the advantages and disadvantages of emotion, Lehrer goes on to do the same for rational thought, owning that one great use of rational thought is as a regulator of emotion:
How do we regulate our emotions? The answer is surprisingly simple: by thinking about them.
The prefrontal cortex allows each of us to contemplate his or her own mind, a talent psychologists call metacognition...The prefrontal cortex can deliberately choose to ignore the emotional brain.
This chapter offers some knuckle whitening writing from Lehrer as he describes the events in the cockpit during the famous Flight 232 as an example of the successful regulation of emotion by rational thought. However, there are times we evidently think too much.  Another chapter is devoted to that subject (after a detour into the application of all of these processes on making moral decisions). Finally, Lehrer reconciles the dual realms in a couple of chapters which employ examples from the world of professional poker and offers us some practical advice of how we may apply the knowledge we have gained. How We Decide is an eminently readable, almost breezy book that benefits from Lehrer's wide interests and effectively communicated enthusiasm for all things brainy, even if it sometimes suffers from some oversimplification or some conflation of neurophysiology with behavior. It dips into the hard science as necessary but should not unduly stress out the lay reader. While less dazzling than Lehrer's debut book Proust was a Neuroscientist, it tells a good story, hitting many of the key points of the psychology of making decisions, communicating all the while how this is a story about us.

Ironically, although The Cardturner is a work of fiction, it is less effective storytelling. The book is the latest effort of Louis Sachar who wrote the wildly popular Holes. While it leaves no doubt for Sachar's love of bridge, it doesn't leave me with any burning desire to go out and learn the game. About one-third of this novel is devoted to descriptions or bridge terms, bridge strategies, and bridge games, a fact which Sachar's narrator - the teenage Alton - apologizes for continually. He conveniently offers a little symbol where these passages begin and end so that one can skip over them and simply read the boxed summary at the end. This could potentially make for a very short read. Tolstoy might have thought of this technique and saved us all a whole lot of time. If Sachar knew he was writing a book on a subject no reader would be interested in, why did he bother? If he conversely believed that the story, his cleverly written narrative voice, or his believable enough teenage characters would interest us enough to be tricked into reading about bridge and discover that - hey this isn't so bad - why doesn't he allow one of those things to do the job? But he does neither. The narrative becomes a thinly veiled expression of his insecurity that we will find bridge either boring or inscrutable - and consequently I did. The story of teenage romantic confusion and coming into ones own is enjoyable enough. Alton's parents are in bad financial straits and they want him to befriend his very wealthy uncle so they are assured of an inheritance. Alton becomes the cardturner for his uncle, an avid bridge player, who has lost his sight. It has a convincingly writtten teenage first-person narrator, some dumb jokes about the Nixon era (one character's psychiatrist is named Dr. Ellsworth - get it?), a couple of well drawn characters - particularly in the rich uncle Lester Trapp, one or two suspenseful sequences, lightening-fast writing, and a lot of bridge. It will no doubt entertain some young adult readers and perhaps even make them curious about the game and, if so, Sachar will have achieved his goal. I was mildly entertained for a couple of hours but I was never wowed.


Criticlasm said...

I take umbrage at the Tolstoy comment ;)

Interestingly, I heard a story the other day of a man who had a brain tumor affecting the area of the brain that governs emotion. When removed, he did not have emotion, but was also completely unable to make any decisions, however simple. He lost his law career, his wife, and is now living in his parents basement, arguing that's it's a fallacy we would be better off or even able to make decisions without emotion or preference.

Ted said...

Actually, you will find that story (along with many others) in JL's book!