Sunday, April 19, 2009

Deciding How We Decide

There was a presentation of a new book called “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer on Cspan 2 It reports scientific research regarding how people make decisions. A guy in the audience asked a question. He observed how when you ask people why they do things – come to this talk by Jonah Lehrer for example – they come up with reasons that may have nothing to do with the real reasons they did what they did. So the questioner may respond to why he came to the talk: “I wanted to get out of the house.” Or “I’m really interested in the brain and how we decide.” Or “I wanted to be at this cool event to pad my ego.” So people create reasons that may have nothing to do with the real reasons for their actions.

But doesn’t this presuppose that there is a true, right reason that someone knows or could know? Who knows that reason and how? Is it the cognitive scientist who’s studied decision making? Is it the psychoanalyst who knows our unconscious motivations? Is it the common sensical observer with their no-nonsense take on things? Which way of determining motivation do we believe tells us the “real” reason? Isn’t that a contested issue? Who decides once and for all which perspective is the correct one for determining our motivations? Each commitment to a perspective on why we do things is, at some fundamental point, an existential act of allegiance.

What’s important is to know what mode of interpretation, what story of how things are we are choosing. What are the advantages and disadvantages of this or that narrative and explanatory framework? The common sense explanation: “I felt like it,” has simplicity and avoids excessive rumination, but will be limited when more complicated situations arise that don’t yield to simple explanations or when simple explanations no longer work. More complicated psychoanalytic explanations may make intuitive sense but feel speculative or not offer a practical course of action if one is needed. The cognitive scientist’s laboratory findings may or may not apply in this individual case and could be contested on procedural grounds: perhaps the experiment is open to interpretation and criticism.

So each explanatory framework will have pluses and minuses. These pluses and minuses will be determined by the application of criteria from that explanatory framework or from one outside which, because of some overlap, will make demands on the framework being adopted. For example, the common sense observer may use the concept of the brain: “my brain’s not working right today.” The neurophysiologist can ask about the brain and pursue some logical line of inquiry which the common sense thinker, because of the array of reasons they are committed to, will feel obligated to answer. Since different interpretative or explanatory frameworks share concepts and criteria they make demands on each other that they feel obligated to answer in order to maintain their coherence and integrity.

The questioner presupposes the common framework of their being a “way in which things are” or “the real reason we do something” but who or what explanatory framework uncontestedly tells us that? It’s an absolutist assumption that can’t be redeemed.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Insight and Terror

Why so often is the patient’s realization in psychotherapy simple, a cliché? Because our psychic economy, our defenses, keep us from seeing it. It’s not the complexity of the thought that keeps us from understanding it, it is the terror of feeling what it means about our life for it to be true.