February 17, 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

"Have world leaders really got the will to bring peace to Yemen? We hear much about Yemen’s crisis, but far less about the hypocrisy of states fuelling the very conflict they condemn."

"No poll so far in our database has tested Trump against the relatively unknown Weld... Indeed, Weld seems like one of the weakest candidates that anti-Trump Republicans could put up in a national campaign. "

"An initiative by the mayor of Tiberias for the municipality to help provide public transportation on the Sabbath has caused the issue of the social status quo to the forefront of public discussion."

"Like “30 Rock,” “Kimmy Schmidt” obviously slanted leftward, but most always exhibited a similar eagerness to skewer politics more generally than just the GOP."

"Yes, we’re all overwhelmed with email. One recent survey suggested that the average American’s inbox has 199 unread messages. But volume isn’t an excuse for not replying."

"... platforms now have a stranglehold over publishers who, individually and even as a group, have little-to-no bargaining power when it comes to algorithmic changes, ad rates, and much else."

"[There's] a subgenre known as National Socialist black metal, which espouses neo-Nazi views and has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as aiming to recruit youth to white-supremacist causes."

"“The Ideas That Made America” by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen is an anomaly in the genre. Its brevity is a point of pride, yet it aspires to do a little of everything."

"My wish is to die in my own bed, cared for by people I love—clean, comfortable and relatively free from pain. I hope to have time to say my goodbyes and give my final blessings."

"A diet for fast weight loss is a pipe dream. Many of us want to lose weight without making permanent changes, because we view thinness instead of health as a success."

"Opportunity casts a long shadow over all subsequent Mars rovers, setting a gold standard of JPL engineering. Customized versions of its mobility software are used on the rovers Curiosity and upcoming Mars 2020."

"Biblical scholarship has deepened our understanding of the Torah and at the same time challenges us to consider the implications of our declaring the Torah to be emet. What is emet and what does it mean to say that the Torah is emet?"