“We often imagine that every decision we make has a rational basis, that everything we do is for a “good reason.” What we never consider is that each choice, each experience actually has an unknown framework that underlies it. So,”why” we think we made a decision may not explain the choice at all.
Mlodinow looks at our decisions from the perspective of the new field of social neuroscience, and finds what Freud and Jung theorized about almost a hundred years ago: that beneath every action and experience that is apparently rational, a set of unconscious processes actually dominates the decision-making process.
But these process are far from the “blood, lust and rage” of the Freudian unconscious, or the universal Platonic conceptions of Jung. Instead, these are adaptive mechanisms that protect us and help us to find a way through the rigors and dangers of life.
For research into these mechanisms, Instead of the “psychologist’s couch” approach to self -understanding taken by classical psychoanalysis, Mlodinow champions an empirically verifiable line of research that is far from the “psychiatrist’s couch” of classical psychoanalysis. Namely, social neuroscience, with the fMRI as the key experimental tool. This is a device that allows scientists to see exactly what processes are occurring in the brain during any given activity or experience.
In an experiment that gives breathtaking evidence of the possibilities presented by social neuroscience, a computer was able to select an image that closely matched one being viewed by an experimental subject, from over six million possible choices, on the basis of analyzing fMRI data alone.
By applying these insights to behavior and experiences in general, Mlodinow shows how we can now identify the unconscious neurological processes that underlie every field of human activity. Mlodinow explains how the unconscious serves not to protect us from, as Freud would have it, a patricidal impulses, but rather to provide a course of action and interpretation of reality that is geared towards survival in the particular environment that formed us. They are a set of neurological routines that have allowed us to survive in whatever strange set of circumstances life has thrown us into.
Additionally, there is no shortage of well-placed humor in this book. For example, when discussing the tendency for humans to anthropomorphize non-human beings, he discusses the tendency for a microscopic roundworm to select one food over another. In passing, he reminds us that a roundworm is not saying to itself, “I’d better watch my diameter.” Such light touches infuse the book, but never obscure the fascinating science (as he brilliantly did in Drunkard’s Walk).
By explaining our everyday decisions not as choices we make for rational reasons, but as the fruits of unconscious processes, Mlodinow is not – as some may criticize him for – sending psychology back a hundred years. Instead, he is showing how we are extraordinarily adaptive creatures, able to survive and thrive in a wide variety of environments. And in the course of our adaptation, we the marks of our environments – at every level of consciousness.”