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YOUR BRAIN IS (ALMOST) PERFECT: How We Make Decisions Paperback – 8 Nov 2007

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THE EXPLOSION HAD BARELY subsided when the cold Atlantic brine embraced the last signs of the great merchant vessel. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Amazon.com: 13 reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
The Neuroscience of Choice: An Introduction 20 Oct. 2008
By Daniel Fowler - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
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.

Book Summary:
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.

Biological computers:
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.

Our Superpower:
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.
35 of 39 people found the following review helpful
Great book ... be aware - same book as "Why Choose This Book" 28 Sept. 2007
By BruceK - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is one of my favorite books. Unfortunately, it was not mentioned anywhere that this is the same book as "Why Choose This Book" before I purchased it.

I guess this was not selling with the other name, or the title was badly chosen in terms of describing what the book was about.

I was hoping that this book was going to be a refinement and elaboration of his ideas in "Why Choose This Book" instead of the same book.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Excellent Choice for Certain Readers But Not Everyone 30 Aug. 2011
By Cisco - Published on Amazon.com
Since the reviews are quite mixed I thought I might try to give you a good idea whether or not you are the kind of reader who would love the book or hate it. It's ironic that there is such a divergence of opinions about the book since it was originally entitled "Why Choose This Book?". I found it to be an excellent book but you might not. Let's see why.

Montague takes a more or less unified academic approach, trying to sketch out an overall theory of the brain as computational machine that assigns values and makes choices in an efficient manner. As a comparaison, it is an easier read and takes less of a textbook approach than Paul W. Glimcher's superb Foundations of Neuroeconomic Analysis. Those two books plus Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain, a book of readings edited by Glimcher, Camerer, Fehr, and Poldrack would be an excellent starter library for someone with a strong interest in neuroscience and decision making.

Montague's overarching idea is that a biological system such as the brain uses energy efficiently as a result of evolutionary processes. He uses the idea of the energy-efficient brain to connect a variety of different aspects of neuroscience for the reader. He covers in a fair amount of detail reinforcement learning, dopamine gating, reward-prediction error models of the dopamine system, and temporal-difference reinforcement learning models. I found his discussion of addiction in the context of the David Redish's temporal-difference reinforcement learning model to be very good. He also covers the way marketing interacts with the brain, and reviews altruism, regret, and trust. The chapters on these topics, however, with the exception of discussion of regret, seem to be more animated by a need to round out the book than by his own research interests. One theme carried throughout the book is that our brain has a superpower, which is our singular ability to substitute ideas as rewards. Dopamine is an error signal that is released to inform the rest of the brain that it is on the right track towards gaining food, or water, or sex. But the superpower of the human brain is the ability to use dopamine to track our ability to follow a non-physical goal. This superpower is what allows humans to die for an abstract idea (liberty, freedom, a spaceship waiting behind a comet), an ability that appears to be uniquely human.

To read and understand the book requires some work on the part of the reader, especially because Montague is a straightforward writer who is obviously a scientist first and a writer second. Parts of the book are an easy read but much of it conveys its ideas by reviewing some very technical research. Montague overall has done a very creditable job finding the proper level for his audience. However, if you're looking for a popular science book written the way Malcolm Gladwell writes, you will likely be disappointed. But if you're interested in this as a guide to leading edge research in the field, and if you're the type who will spend time on the chapter end notes and perhaps follow up some of the referenced articles, then you can learn a lot and come away with a great deal of appreciation for Montague's effort to bring the reader into the front lines of neuroscience research.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
A very important book that has yet (unfortunately) to reach mass appeal. 7 Jan. 2010
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is quite an unassuming book at first blush. With all the other books out there that deal with human decision-making, this one is by far the most advanced. There are lots of pop-psychology books in this genre (Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking or How We Decide) but believe me when I say that this is hands down the winner. Montague is a top-notch neuroscientist, which means that he delves into the "meat" of the decision-making process; the other guys just look at the consequences.

There are many things that Montague covers in this book - Turing's Computational Theory of Mind (CToM), Natural Selection/ Evolution, Reinforcement Learning, Neuroeconomics, Free Will and Philosophy of Mind - which to some reader's, may be overwhelming. However, in my view, it is well worth the effort to try and comprehend what Montague is proposing - a newer "Efficient Computational Theory of Mind (ECToM). His theory is a form of Physicalism, which simply means that what we regard as feelings and emotions are only physical states in the brain. And the brain is hardwired to find 'value' in these emotions; hence, it is possible for humans to disregard their instinct for survival in order to fulfill something that has a greater 'value' to that individual. Montague calls these 'values' that can override our need for survival "superpowers." This is a very interesting concept and helps explain irrational behaviors that people do, such as the cults that commit mass-suicide (Heaven's Gate, Order of the Solar Temple and Jonestown).

This is a great book - I wore out my highlighter picking out my favorite passages. There are so many important concepts here that I can't even begin to write them all down. I highly recommend this book. Also, another couple of books that converge well with Montague's are De Marchi and Hamilton's book: You Are What You Choose: The Habits of Mind that Really Determine How We Make Decisions, Metzinger's book: The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self and Gazzaniga's book Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Great ideas next to impossible to read 24 Jan. 2011
By Mark Levison - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
There is a great book waiting inside this one. The author introduces some excellent ideas however I'm struggling to stay focused for more than a page at a time. I do a lot of reading in the field of neuroscience. For a book that was intended for a general audience I'm amazed at how difficult it is to read. With a great editor this book could easily be a four stars.
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