Thinking It Through and Station Eleven

Catching up on old issues of The New Yorker, I came across Joshua Rothman’s essay in the Annals of Inquiry – Thinking It Through – examining rational decision making and how well it works. Although I tend to overthink my decisions and try to research every angle of possibilities, more times than not, it is my intuition or gut feeling that weighs in the most. Maybe that’s not so bad, according to Rothman.

Throughout the essay, Rothman compares rational thought to impulsive decisions, pointing out how much harder it is for an emotional and impulsive person to make the right choices – or is it? Although examining, dissecting, and comparing choices in life – become an English professor or an economist, rent or own – many of us do make life altering decisions based on our opinions of what we think is best and our views of what is right.

Having lived through gut wrenching worry over what to do, I wondered if Rothman was about to advise and conclude that only rational thought could direct all successful actions, but then he offers scenarios where it is intuition that guides to the better path. Nothing should be done on a whim; on the other hand, not everything can be calculated precisely. Life just doesn’t work like that.

I’ve torn out the last paragraph of his multi-page essay to slide into the side pocket of my wallet, and may reread it the next time I am in a quandary – probably soon – again. Here it is:

The realities of rationality are humbling. Know things; want things; use what you know to get what you want. It sounds like a simple formula. But, in truth, it maps out a series of escalating challenges. In search of fact, we must make do with probabilities. Unable to know it all for ourselves, we rely on others who care enough to know. We must act while we are still uncertain, and we must act in time – sometimes individually, but often together. For all this to happen, rationality is necessary, but not sufficient. Thinking straight is just part of the work.”

Station Eleven

Although Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was published in 2014, years before our current familiar crisis, her novel is gaining new readers with its view of life after a pandemic. I have not yet read the book but am following the HBO series based on the book, and am so gratified to know Shakespeare’s plays can survive, even after the apocalypse.

In Writing “Finding Joy Through Art at the End of the World in ‘Station Eleven” for the New York Times, Alexandra Alter quotes chief television critic James Poniewozik – “{Station Eleven} is the most uplifting show about life after the end of the world that you are likely to see.”

I’m not sure if I will read the book – of course there are differences, some sanctioned by the author, but I will continue to watch the series, looking forward to an ending where stories and Shakespeare stand the test of time and anything else the universe throws at us.


What you see is not what you get.

David Eagleman addresses the differences between seeing and perception in Incognito – The Secret Lives of the Brain.  David Copperfield isn’t the only magician that can fool you into seeing something that’s not there – so can your brain.  Eagleman uses a conversational tone to explain the science behind how the brain registers and interprets vision.

Are you fascinated with perception puzzles?  Is it a vase or two faces?  Eagleman offers this popular figure-ground example, along with other exercises to test your awareness – some you’ve tried, others new – all fun.  Although Eagleman carefully includes the scientific principles behind the unconscious brain’s control, he’s careful to not overdue the pedagogy.  Just when you think you are getting more information than you need, he throws in another task for you to test a theory, almost making the book interactive.

“When you are losing {at tennis}, simply ask your opponent how she serves the ball so well.  Once she contemplates the mechanics of her serve and tries to explain it , she’s sunk.”

Eagleman suggests that we may each be operating in our private Truman shows – the reality we know only skims the surface of all that is possible. Using examples like choices in mates, the world economy, even bank accounts, Eagleman easily converts the science of the brain to common place experiential data that explains the battle in our heads. What inner negotiations are going on when you decide whether or not to eat that piece of chocolate cake? Why do you feel happier if you sit up straight instead of slouching?

In chapter 6, “Why Blameworthiness is the Wrong Question,” Eagleman’s  soap box approach to changing the criminal justice takes the subject off track – giving the author his say on the social implications of the subconscious mind.  Rehabilitation through rewiring – short of lobotomy – sounds humane; unfortunately, Eagleman has no sound suggestions for implementation.  In the end, without a means to study the brains of criminals before sentencing, he reverts to sending them to prison anyway, while he dreams of further study to create ” a neurally compatible social policy.”  If you skip this chapter, you will only miss Eagleman’s yielding to his own brain’s impulses.

In the first five chapters, Incognito is a primer – a simple “the brain for dummies”:

  • the conscious mind is “not the one driving the boat”
  • useful routines are burned into the brain’s circuitry (subconscious) and become the control default – we are slaves to our brains
  • human action is the result of an unconscious debate among competing factions in our brains – like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s’ a “team of rivals.”

He ends with a promise that a better understanding of neurobiology may lead to a better life, citing Montaigne’s introspective search for “What do I know?”  But Eagleman also acknowledges that the study of the brain is so complex, involving so much we do not know that…

“If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand them.”

For now, most of us are just happy to believe in the “magic” of the brain’s operation.