Brain strain

By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  April 8, 2009

Lehrer's confident prose is liveliest when showing us how the brain's inner-workings contradict theological and philosophical theories. Addressing Kant's assertion that morality is based on logic, Lehrer explains how our conceptions of right and wrong are actually quite instinctual, emotional decisions, which we use our reason to defend. (This is the basis for many of our political and aesthetic opinions as well.) "These moral instincts aren't rational," he says, "they've never heard of Kant."

At the same time, he's sensitive to and aware of the flaws in our wiring. We frequently and inevitably make mistakes — we look to our guts when a moment of careful thought is more appropriate, and vice versa — but we have (at least) the capacity to learn from them. Lehrer lays out when we should make certain types of decisions in his "taxonomy of decision-making," with the overriding suggestion that we "think about thinking:" even when a whimsical, merely aesthetic choice may prove to be your best option, acknowledging that fact is important; it'll make you a more confident actor. While Lehrer doesn't get around to a few obvious questions — the ultimate "heart vs. head" realm, romance, for one — How We Decide may at least make you stop being the guy who has to order last and, even so, blurts out an order in an uncertain bluster every time he goes out to brunch.

This book got Christopher Gray to cut up one of his credit cards. Collection agencies can contact him at

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