Thursday, June 18, 2009

Brain power

I sometimes think that for a classic heart guy I am far too fascinated by the workings of the brain. But let’s face it, it’s the two working together that inspire great leaps of imagination. I feel, therefore I think. Today, neuroscientists are leading the charge to unravel our emotional lives via the electric impulses they can measure. What a perfect word ‘impulses’ is for the emotionally-led brain to be driven by.

Recently I was on a panel with Malcolm Gladwell, the high priest of unraveling the mysteries of science and a great storyteller. Now, thanks to a colleague Laurence Green, I’ve just come across a couple of books by a young (at 27, very young) scientist who might give Malcolm a run for his money, Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer has been a regular writer for Wired for a while now and has also published in Malcolm’s bailiwick The New Yorker . His first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, tracked how creative insight connects with scientific breakthrough. Think of the great French chef, Auguste Escoffier, who like the inimitable Ferran Adria today at El Bulli, used his profound knowledge of how flavors respond to one another to transform the complex chemistry of cooking. Or Marcel Proust, the French writer who helped define the way memory works through his monumental novel Remembrance of Things Past. Or Paul Cezanne recalibrating the way we see by playing around with the classic laws of perspective.

Now Lehrer has tackled another theme even closer to my heart in How We Decide. Here he explores how emotions play their part in creating and shaping the brain’s responses as we make our thousands of decisions every day. If you’ve read my book, Lovemarks: the Future Beyond Brands, you may have noticed the fingerprints of Antonio Damasio all over it, and this brilliant neuroscientist features high in Jonah Lehrer’s pantheon too.

Lehrer is a great storyteller with a great story to tell – the story of the emotional brain. The tale of a radar operator who took action when the blip on his screen looked like an aircraft but felt like a missile, or the pilot who landed a DC-10 without hydraulics and with instinct.

Lehrer concludes with a simple rule of thumb. We all know it and we all know we should follow it, but as we get more experienced and more educated it gets harder to do. If it doesn’t feel right, or it feels too good to be true, it probably is. Let’s make How We Decide compulsory reading for anyone who wants to work in a company that has had a public bailout. Test them on the book’s principles, insist they come up with real world examples from their personal experience, and maybe we’ll end up with a smarter bunch at the top than we currently have.