Sunday, April 12, 2009

'Pure reason is actually a disease'

Jonah Lehrer, author of "The Decisive Moment", appeared on a recent episode of The Guardian's Science Weekly podcast and provided some interesting insight into how your mind makes decisions.

Should you trust your gut? During the first Gulf War, British sailor Michael Riley saw a couple of blips on his radar that terrified him. Almost immediately, he fired his counter-measures (Sea Dart rockets). But there was a good chance those blips he reacted to could have been either Iraqi Silkworm missiles (that would sink a battleship) or United States A-6 fighter planes. He had to wait a few hours to find out if he made the right decision or not.

As it turns out, he made the right decision.

Due to subtle discrepancies in the behavior of those blips (they appeared three minutes apart), Riley's subconscious mind correctly interpreted a threat and triggered the fear response that terrified him.

Think about this for a minute. The subconscious, instinctual mind was using emotion to communicate with the conscious, rational side.

But that doesn't mean you should always trust your gut. Unfortunately, the instinctual side of your mind is "full of hard-wired flaws," says Lehrer. For example, "loss aversion," which "makes people irrationally sensitive to losses." And this manifests in people's stock portfolios (including, very sadly, those of us at Pound360).

"When people decide which stocks to buy or sell, they're more likely to sell stocks that have gone up in value," said Lehrer, "unfortunately that means you end up with a stock portfolio composed entirely of losing stocks."

So what should you do? When do you know to trust your instincts? Unfortunately, there is no easier answer, but you certainly should be paying attention.

Consider people that lose their emotions through brain injury. "They become pathologically indecisive," explains Lehrer, "they spend the entire day trying to figure out where to eat lunch. So in this sense, pure reason isn't something to aspire to, pure reason is actually a disease."

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.