Who’s in charge here?


I’m reading Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide and enjoying it immensely.

Deciding is not what you thought. It’s not a rational process.

Scientists equipped with fMRI gear are discovering that emotion and social relations are bedrock.

This article by Marilyn Bunting in the Guardian draws these conclusions from recent books that peer into our brains:

First, we have much underestimated the social nature of the brain: how primed it is to recognise, interpret and respond all the time to the input of others and how that lays down patterns which govern our behaviour. We are herd-like animals who show a strong tendency to conform with group norms; what makes our brains so much bigger than other primates is this remarkable capacity for social skills such as empathy, co-operation and fairness. Instead of the old metaphor of individuals as discrete entities like billiard balls, we need to think instead of them as nodes in a relationship network.

The second area of astonishing discoveries is in the plasticity of the brain. We talk of “hardwiring” (computers have generated many misleading metaphors for the brain) but in fact, the brain can be changed. Parts of the brain can learn entirely new tricks. Neural pathways are not fixed, and even much of the damage done by deprivation in childhood can be repaired with the right circumstances of example, support and determination. We can shape our own brains to create new habits that we might have thought we were not capable of.

Instead of pointing out that “Learning is social,” perhaps we should simply say that “People are social.”