April 21, 2019

How to Stop Overthinking and Make a Decision

“What does the “resting brain” look like? If you want to map mental activities to regions of the brain, you need this answer to serve as a baseline. Yet when researchers in the 1990s instructed people to think about nothing in particular, their brains lit up in a regular pattern on PET and fMRI to a surprising degree. Moreover, they were using the parts of their brains least developed in nonhuman primates. Apparently, when nothing is happening, we engage in especially sophisticated forms of thinking—namely, thinking about what is not happening: daydreaming, strategizing, or solving hypothetical problems.

This sort of fact—a counterintuitive mini-narrative in the history of science—is the mainstay of Steven Johnson’s Farsighted. More generally, Johnson’s attention is on the human being as deliberative creature, one who has resources of what Daniel Kahneman called “slow thinking” at her disposal. Such thinking is insulated both from what is happening in the thinker’s immediate environment and from the task of directing bodily movement. Quoting psychologist Martin Seligman, Johnson writes that “a more apt name for our species would be homo prospectus, because we thrive by considering our prospects.”

The book’s historical—though not chronologically presented—treatment of the improvements to human deliberation over the past eighty years revolve around technological advances: weather prediction; the advent of randomized controlled trials in medicine (dating only to 1948!); software that allows us to run environmental simulations; the manifold forms of expert calculation, simulation, model-construction, and adversarial collaboration (“red-teaming”) that go into modern military planning (such as the raid on Osama bin Laden’s complex). We now entertain larger sets of options, factor in longer-term consequences, calibrate levels of (un)certainty more precisely, and incorporate uncertainty into our plans. This allows us to make better military decisions, better medical decisions, and better environmental decisions.”

Read more

JJ Editor's Daily Picks

"After five years of war with the Islamic State, the biggest problem for the winners is coping with the losers. The aftermath has produced one of the world’s most perplexing postwar challenges..."

"What do we mean when we say that the “soul of the city” is under threat? Often, it’s really about politics, nostalgia, and the fear of community change."

"...the pendulum of history never stops moving. Indeed, one of the few constants of history is unceasing change. While we seem to be heading in one direction, we must remember that there will surely be pauses, turns, and reversals."

""Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé," premiered early Wednesday and it was the fulfillment of all the ancestors' hopes and dreams. Beyoncé also dropped "Homecoming: The Live Album.""

"Seven in 10 adults ages 18 to 34 received financial support from their parents in the last year, including more than half of those in their early 30s. Almost three in five millennials said they couldn’t afford their lifestyles without the support."

"Social media influencers have helped turn public lands into tourist-infested swamps. And one cantankerous man is fighting back."

"One particular myth that attached itself to Ledger was that his death was somehow a result of immersing himself in the character of the Joker."

"In 2018, for the second year in a row, American publishers released fewer translated titles: 609 books were published, down from 650 in 2017 and the industry high in 2016 of 666."

"Egg freezing had become so routine among my single peers that when I hit 35, I never thought twice. Here’s what I wish I had known."

"When it comes to Passover cuisine, most home cooks know to avoid wheat, oats, rye, and other forbidden ingredients. But what consumers might not realize is just how much cotton they eat during the holiday."

"A masked figure looms over your recumbent body, wielding power tools and sharp metal instruments, doing things to your mouth you cannot see."

"Passover is a holiday that commemorates the Jewish people escaping slavery in Egypt. It is often referred to as the “festival of freedom.” My Passover in prison was at a place called the Wallkill Correctional Facility..."