Reading: The Elephant in the Brain

I very much enjoyed reading “The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson. In every bookstore there is a shelf of similar books, ranging from behavioral economics to classical neuroscience, all making similar claims as to the inaccessibility of our thought, motivation and decision making process.

My own realization that we had not access to the human decision making apparatus was the main reason I lost interest in analytic decision making tools like decision trees. I found that most decision makers rejected them as artificial and those who embraced them tended to manipulate the results enough to render the process no better than the typical informal methods we use to make decisions large and small.

When I read books like The Elephant in the Brain or listen to Sam Harris on rational morality, I get a bit frustrated with the implicit dualism that creeps into the conversation, the implication that we are in charge of some parts of our brain even if we are not in charge of others. I was very happy to hear Sean Carrol call out Sam on this very point in a recent podcast. It’s as Gregory Bateson said many years ago: speaking of mind affecting brain is a category error. It’s brain and neurons all the way down, there’s no “I”, no ego area of the brain controlling it in whole or part. We experience what the brain is doing through this miracle of conscious experience.

I’m quite impressed in reviewing literature at how far neuroscience has gotten in explaining decision making at the brain level, including the neural correlates of belief and uncertainty. One of the most important conclusions that we reach is that decision making occurs during perception itself. The brain processes ambiguous stimuli as nothing until it reaches some threshold level of certainty. Only then is is the perception formed enough to intrude into consciousness as it activates brain networks controlling action based on anticipated reward.

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