Published by: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009
The Boeing 737 was at seven thousand feet descending into San Diego’s Lindbergh Field from the west, due to weather conditions, when the left engine caught fire. Bells and horns sounded immediately within the cockpit, warning the pilots of multiple system failures. The plane immediately reacted to the emergency cutoff of fuel to the affected engine by banking steeply. The pilots struggled to steer the plane as it veered first one way, then the other, but their efforts were in vain.
Then came the warning that the “moment of no return” was upon them. The pilots felt the shudder of a stall: air was moving too slowly over the wings to keep the aircraft aloft. The sounds of the metal frame shrieking and groaning filled the plane. If the 737 didn’t increase its speed immediately, the aircraft would plunge into the Pacific well within sight of Ocean Beach.
The choices the pilot faced were two-fold: increase the throttle on the remaining engine or decrease power to steepen the descent, hoping in either case that the plane would pick up speed enough to regain control. In this situation (paraphrased from the book’s introduction), the seemingly illogical move—decreasing power to the engine—was the way to save the plane and it’s occupants.
Faced with a moment of overwhelming fear, how did the pilots know to make this counter-intuitive move?
A U.S. Army World War II study of soldiers right after they’d been in combat came to the shocking conclusion that less than 20 percent actually shot at the enemy, even when under attack. Brigadier General S.L.A Marshal wrote: “At the most vital point of battle, the soldier becomes a conscientious objector”.
The realization that personal moral qualms about killing other human beings led to soldiers being incapacitated by their emotions caused an overhaul of military training programs that included repetitive firing of weapons at anatomically correct targets that fell after being hit. By teaching soldiers to fire their weapons reflexively and de-sensitizing them to the act of killing, the military steadily raised its “ratio of fire” to 90 percent during the Vietnam War. These exercises had the effect of turning the most personal of moral situations into an impersonal reflex.
One can only speculate over how this desensitization has impacted society at large.
A high school teacher is diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a condition triggered by the loss of neurons in the part of brain that controls the body’s movements. Her physician immediately put her on a drug called Requip, a drug that imitates dopamine activity in the brain. While the drug initially had a dramatic effect on her symptoms, over time she required increasing dosages to function normally.
Then the teacher, who had no history of gambling, became addicted to slot machines. Over the next few months, she depleted her retirement savings and pension fund, losing her husband, and selling off all her possessions to feed her habit. She eventually was reduced to eating peanut butter straight from the jar to survive. After being taken off the drug in 2006, the slot machine addiction disappeared overnight.
Studies now show that Requip usage can trigger (in about 13% of users) an extraordinary chemical imbalance in the brain, one which casinos have learned to exploit even with people who aren’t chemically pre-disposed towards gambling. The average American spends five times more on slot machines annually than movie tickets. No wonder there are now twice as many slot machines as ATMs in the United States.
In How We Decide, author Jonah Lehrer tells about the latest insights that neuroscientists have into what makes the three pound organ in our heads tick. He does this by a using a clever mix of compelling anecdotes, as the three examples above demonstrate, along with contemporary studies in human brain activity that offer insight into the complex mixture of genetic, chemical and electrical activity underlying the decision making process.
This makes for compelling reading. The book should be on anybody’s list that ever wondered about the dialectic (there isn’t one, actually…or is there?) between the emotional and rational parts of the decision making process. You’ll learn a lot of interesting things about real-life situations that might be useful, like how credit card usage is exploited by bypassing parts of the brain that would normally encourage more responsible behavior.
What’s lacking here, however, is a realistic portrayal of just how little is actually understood about the brain’s workings. Of course, “We don’t know” doesn’t sell books, so it’s not surprising—in a sense—that the author loads us up with lots of blue smoke and mirrors about what’s going on in neuroscience. There’s a serious difference between observing something and understanding why it’s happening that is sadly lacking not only in this book, but in the field itself.
One needs to look no further than the appalling exploitation of these “insights” by the pharmaceutical industry, which generates hundred of billions of dollars every year by relentlessly marketing mind altering substances, to understand just how primitive our understanding of the thought process really is.
The many anti-depressant drugs, for instance, are commonly prescribed, even though there is no real understanding of why the effect they have (generally, increased serotonin production) changes people’s mood or outlook. Some of these drugs seem to work in some people, but getting the right drugs for an individual’s situation often requires multiple regimens. And then there are those nasty side effects that gets relegated to the fine print. Does any know why Zoloft causes deep seated rage and anger in some people? And why is it okay for patients taking anti-depressants not to have a sex drive?
To place the current perceptions of the brain in an understandable context, it’s safe to say that we’ve just about entered the level of neuroscientific comprehension comparable to the days when physiological disorders were treated with leaches and bloodletting. I’m all for better living through chemistry. And I don’t wish to sound anti-science. It’s just time for a little more honesty and a little less bullshit in this field.