August 18, 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.”

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