Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Powell's Books - Q&A with Jonah Lehrer

Powell's Books conducts an interesting - though far too brief - interview with Jonah Lehrer.

Jonah Lehrer

Describe your latest project.
How We Decide is about what happens inside your brain when you make up your mind. It's about the new neuroscience of decision-making, and why knowing what your cortex is doing when you're picking out a breakfast cereal, or a mutual fund, or making some crucial life-or-death decision is so important. But the book isn't just a summary of recent research. I discuss some ingenious experiments in this book, but let's face it: the lab is a startlingly artificial place. And so, wherever possible, I tried to explore these scientific ideas in the context of the real world. Instead of just writing about hyperbolic discounting and the feebleness of the prefrontal cortex, I spent time with a debt counselor in the Bronx. When I became interested in the anatomy of insight — where do our good ideas come from? — I interviewed a pilot whose epiphany in the cockpit saved hundreds of lives. That's when you really begin to appreciate the power of this new science, when you can use its ideas to explain all sorts of important phenomena, from the risky behavior of teenagers to the amorality of psychopaths to the reason athletes choke under pressure.

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
John Dewey, the great American philosopher. If you can struggle through his prose, which can be unbelievably tedious, his ideas remain incredibly relevant and alive. I'd begin with Experience and Education.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken." That's Jane Austen, from Emma.

How do you relax?
A beer and Sportscenter. Or a good novel, a cup of tea, and a spot of sunshine on the couch, which given the arrangement of my apartment, normally occurs at about 3:30 in the afternoon.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
For some reason, most of my pilgrimages end up being literary. Most recently, I was down in Camden, NJ, to see the Walt Whitman House. But my favorite pilgrimage involved lying down in Wordsworth's bed in his charming cottage in the Lake District.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
Do slippers count as shoes? If so, my slippers are my favorite because they're slippers, and not really shoes.

What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Did I mention that moment when the sun comes through the window and lands on my couch?

Why do you write?
Because writing is how I think through ideas.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Books I Pretend to Have Read from Beginning to End

In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust (I confess to skipping over a few of the lengthier digressions in the later volumes)

The Principles of Neural Science, edited by Eric Kandel, et. al.

Any book by John Dewey (I know, I know, what a hypocrite)

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

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Jonah Lehrer is editor-at-large for Seed magazine and the author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist (2007) and How We Decide (February 2009). A graduate of Columbia University and a Rhodes Scholar, Lehrer has worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel and has written for the New Yorker, Wired, Boston Globe, Washington Post, and Nature, and writes a highly regarded blog, The Frontal Cortex. Lehrer also commentates for NPR's Radio Lab.


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