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This book is a fascinating introduction to the mechanisms behind the choices we make. I highly recommend it to people who are looking for a basic understanding of the neuroscience of choice, as we understand it currently. All the information you need is included and discussed, and the book is filled with interesting stories and illustrations that make the author's train of thought easy to follow. My few complaints fall into two categories: writing and content. On the writing side, the transitions between topics inside a chapter can be choppy, which makes it difficult to connect everything together. Also, his writing style tends to be a bit wordy. On the content side, the book skims over a lot of information I would have liked to know, such as what is happening at the cellular level when we feel regret or trust. However, the book makes no claim to be an end-all resource and does have a large bibliography to allow further reading. Each of the book's eight chapters cover several topics, but they relate to each other well and Dr. Montague (the author) does a good job tying them all together. For the purposes of a summary, I have divided the book into three parts: background, elements of choice (models, valuation, goals, etc.), and the big picture. Also, while this book covers a wide range of topics, I wanted to cover just a couple of the ones I found especially interesting to give potential readers an idea of what the book is like.
The background chapters, one and two, build a framework to hang the rest of the book on. They introduce ideas such the differences between the hardware and software of a computation device, and principles of efficient computing. A computation device or "computer" here can refer to the electrical device most commonly associated with the word, or a brain. The middle chapters, three through seven, address the elements that combine to form our ability to choose. These include how we make models of our selves and others, how we use these to make predictions, and how we generate preference. Also covered is how the brain assigns value, sets goals, learns, and a theory of how the emotions of trust and regret work to influence choice. Chapter eight, the final chapter, is essentially a conclusion which talks about us as individuals in light of the information contained in the previous chapters.
The book starts off with the story of Alan Turning, a mathematician who came up with the idea that any procedure can be represented by a sequence of elementary computations; this is called an algorithm. This is the beginning of the modern computer, which can be divided into two parts: hardware, the physical elements of the computer, and software, the programs that the computer runs. Humans have a biological computer made up of our brains (the hardware) together with our minds (the software). Dr. Montague says "Your mind is not equal to your brain and the interaction of its parts, but your mind is equivalent to the information processing, the computations, supported by your brain"(p.8). This is an interesting concept because it allows us to "...[tie] patterns of computation (mindlike stuff) to physical interactions (stufflike stuff) taking place inside our skulls." (p.11) With this distinction in place we can observe each part independent from the other, for clarification, before putting them back together to describe the system as a whole. Because what happens mentally when people choose go on a hunger strike is so incredibly complex, we need to be able to segregate systems and look at them individually. Sort of like how we can look at the changes in electrical signals of the heart separate from the changes in pressure of the heart even though they are related to each other.
Skimming through the book we come to chapter 4: "Sharks don't go on hunger strikes". One of the issues this chapter addresses is how humans can override survival instincts to the point of death. One example of this is the mass suicide by the Heaven's Gate cult in 1997. They believed by killing themselves they would be transported to a spaceship that was flying behind the Hale-Bopp comet. How does this ability, that Dr. Montague calls a superpower, allow us to overcome our instincts? A short, general answer is that "ideas gain the power of rewards and become instantly meaningful to the rest of the brain, especially the learning and decision making algorithms running there." (p.111) Because ideas, like finding food, produce reward signals in the brain, we can pursue them with the same intensity that we pursue things essential for survival. Once these ideas have been created, and what we believe to be good ideas are identified, our goal and learning systems kick in to reinforce the role of those ideas in our lives. It is this superpower that allows humans to suffer and even die for an abstract principle, whether it is animal rights or social injustice.
This is a very interesting book on decision making that I can easily recommend. It made me think, and has given me things to think about even after I finished the book. Whenever I choose between this and that, I find myself thinking "now why did I do this instead of that?" This is also book I can recommend to a wide range of people. Because everything you need to understand what he is talking about is contained in the book, and he has plenty of illustrations and stories to clarify his points, it doesn't require a technical background to read and enjoy. If you like cutting-edge neuroscience in general or if you like choice specifically, this is a book for you.