Tag Archives: decision making

Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00, 279 pages)

Ever wonder if those fabulous songs, novels and paintings that make life so much more enjoyable can only be created by a few brilliant and troubled people?   Maybe you aspire to be more creative, or you wish it for your children.   Jonah Lehrer, the thirty-something scientific writer, has done an in-depth study of the creative process.   He begins his latest work, Imagine, by focusing the first half on the individual and the way the parts of his brain interact.   The second half of the book explores what happens when groups of people work together in the attempt to be creative.

Because Lehrer is an engaging story-teller, the reader gladly accompanies him as he learns about what led to some of the most memorable individual creativity of recent time.   For example, Bob Dylan is the subject of the first chapter.   Later in the second part the reader hears the back story about some of the most amazing corporate breakthroughs that produced winning products like the Swiffer Sweeper.

This is no magazine quick-read or glossy book with simple highlights to quote at the next family gathering.   Rather, Lehrer blends his discussion on neurology with diagrams and clearly written text that is fascinating, rather than academic or – heaven forbid – boring.   He concentrates on what makes us who we are and our unique humanness.   As progress is being made in the exploration of the human brain, new findings and concepts have come to light.   Our brains can be seen in action through the use of equipment such as the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.   The results of these studies and experiments that were conducted while scientists were peering into active brains are fascinating.   Lehrer uses the “You Are There” technique to draw the reader into appreciating the scientists and researchers he showcases along with their contributions to understanding creativity.

There are some requirements for achieving notable creativity.   It’s not a matter of being zapped by a great idea.   As Lehrer states, “It’s impossible to overstate the importance of working memory.   For one thing, there is a strong correlation between working memory and general intelligence, with variations in the size of working memory accounting for approximately 60 percent of the variation in IQ scores.”   Moreover, the poems, plays and novels we have enjoyed from writers like W. H. Auden or William Shakespeare, were not produced in brilliant flashes of insight.   The authors dedicated time and energy to writing and rewriting their works until the result was perfection.

Lastly, Lehrer makes a great case for nurturing the youth among us by fostering in them what he calls “the outsider view.”   It’s not memorization or rote school work that will foster creativity; rather, it’s taking a step back, detaching from the obvious and fostering an alternative view.

“According to the researchers, the advantage of play is that it’s often deeply serious – kids are most focused when they are having fun.”

Imagine is a well-paced learning experience that keeps the reader’s attention and is never overwhelming.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Jonah Lehrer earlier wrote How We Decide, which is reviewed here along with The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar:  https://josephsreviews.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/the-art-of-choosing/ .

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Help Me

Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time by Paul Hammerness, M.D., and Margaret Moore, with John Hanc (Harlequin, $16.95, 272 pages)

Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World by Sam Sommers (Riverhead Hardcover, $25.95, 304 pages)

Often the focus of self-help books is the reader’s feelings of discomfort, inadequacy or anger.   That said, the two books reviewed here are pragmatic and filled with specific science-based ideas formulated by well-respected professionals in their respective fields.

The first book, Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life: Train Your Brain to Get More Done in Less Time, was written by the team of Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Paul Hammerness, M.D., Margaret Moore, a certified wellness coach and cofounder of Harvard’s Institute of Coaching with assistance from John Hanc, an associate professor of journalism and communications at the New York Institute of Technology.   The premise of Organize Your Mind is that daily stress is produced by too much to do and this overload, in turn, produces a sense of helplessness.   The book looks at how your conscious actions can bring about a sense of mastery and control to daily life as well as assist in long-range planning.

Each area discussed is introduced by Dr. Hammerness in what he calls “The Rules of Order.”   Each of the rules is about brain functioning and how it relates to ones’ actions and feelings.   The six rules are followed by pragmatic action steps outlined by Coach Margaret.   Accompanying each rule are highlighted sidebars filled with explanations and contextual comments that enhance the reader’s experience.   Dr. Hammerness includes suggestions for readers whose issues extend beyond the scope of the book.   He takes a kindly attitude and suggests that there are situations where professional help beyond that offered in the book is indicated.

The chapters and rules are cumulative which allows the reader to follow along and build skills.   The tone of the authors’ writing is non-judgmental, realistic and yet not a buddy-buddy one.   There are really good puns scattered in the text.   Alas, this reviewer is not able to quote any of them as an advance uncorrected proof was provided by the publisher.

Highly recommended.

The second book, Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World was written by Sam Sommers, a remarkably young-looking psychology professor at Tufts University.   Sommers is also an expert witness who is called upon to testify as to whether actions and statements are racially motivated or merely meaningful descriptors that may be admitted as evidence in court proceedings.

This book is an excellent complement to Organize Your Mind that can be best appreciated if read as a follow-up in the reader’s self-improvement strategy.   Sommers makes good use of scientific findings to support his conclusions.   However, his assertion is that introspection will not bring someone to discover the means to the life they wish to have.   Rather, his focus is on the ways that environmental influences assert significant power over the decisions people make and the actions they take every day.   Watchfulness and awareness of the context (location, group or ethnic background) in which one finds one’s self can lead to a significantly different outcome, such as summoning police assistance, questioning odd behavior or just realizing that people mindlessly parrot what they think is true.   An excellent parallel can be made with reference to Malcolm Gladwell’s books, particularly Tipping Point.   Several of the studies he cites are common to both books.

The chapter structure of Situations Matter follows that of a survey book.   Sommers does tie back to his beginning hypothesis that we see the world as a “what you see is what you get” sort of place.   (The computer shorthand is WYSIWYG.)   He also makes good use of examples from his university classroom exercises.   The tone of the book is friendly and it reads like a transcript from the psychology class you wish you’d taken.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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Farther On

“Now the distance leads me farther on/ Though the reasons I once had are gone/ With my maps and my faith in the distance/ Moving farther on…”   Jackson Browne

Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Pantheon; 268 pages; $24.95)

Maggie Pouncey is bringing back language, slow and careful language.   It’s the type of language that began to disappear in the 1960’s.   The language that the daughter of a college president might have grown up hearing…

One gave the dog a sop, not a treat or bite; one woke not at dawn but at sparrow fart, and wore not party clothes but finery.   Now it was like speaking Yiddish, or some other dying language; soon there would be nobody around to talk to.

Perfect Reader is a story of a not-so-young 28-year-old woman who returns to her home town after her father’s death.   The town is Darwin, Massachusetts which daughter Flora Dempsey has returned to from, presumably, Boston.   Flora’s father was the president of Darwin College (as the author’s father was the president of Amherst College), and also a noted literary critic, professor and sometime poet.

Flora is a rootless person who has not yet decided what to do with her self, her life.   She’s disoriented coming back to the small college town built on “liberal well-meaningness”; it’s a town more than a bit reminiscent of Davis, California.   But then she felt no more at home working in the city.

Flora’s parents had been divorced many years before and she had made her best career out of avoiding her father.   Now the time for avoidance is gone.   She must handle his funeral arrangements, and everything her father owned – his home, his writings, and his books – has been left to her.   This is not the least of things, as Flora learns that her dad had a lover, a female instructor from the college.   The woman wants to be close to Flora, but Flora just wants to isolate, to have people leave her alone while she ponders her next steps.   In a strange way she envies her father’s escape from the people who trouble you:  “The dead left you alone, but it was the living who filled you up with loneliness.”

“Flora felt her life shrinking.   The smallness of the table provided a good metaphor.   No room for other people.   Soon her life would cease to be a table; it wouldn’t even be a cocktail table.   It would be a solitary chair, hard-backed and wooden…”

This likely sounds depressing but in the telling – a careful and precise telling – it is not.   The Boston Globe called it, “(An) exquisitely observed drama.”   This is because it comes down to the words, the language, which makes the reader feel like he or she has picked up a novel from the wrong decade, if not century.

It is, however, slow.   This is something that some readers will have a problem with but it is deliberately slow.   The author has said that, “so many of the books I love are slow.”   If and when this novel is made into a film, there will be no car chases, no gun battles, no slaps or loud confrontations.   It will be a moody movie that will be loved or hated.

I loved this very contemplative story set around a basic theme.   Does a child, even an adult child, grow up by escaping her past or embracing it?   Whose life is it and, presuming it’s your own, why do we pay such a high price for not fulfilling the expectations of others?

Although Flora’s father has passed (and Flora so hates that people will use any word in the English language but dead) she must nonetheless battle her mother’s expectations, and the fact that she fails to heed her mom’s advice.   In one prime scene, Flora’s mother suggests that she volunteer somewhere in order to provide “some structure” to her life.   “How wonderfully helpful, Mom.   How sage…” responds Flora who is tired and “regressing, moving backward, growing down.”

Yes, our protagonist Flora is not someone who everyone will like or relate to.   She’s brittle and angry and exhausted but, two years short of her third decade on this world, she’s reached the point of decision-making.   Who and what is she going to be in her life?

Perfect Reader is not for everyone.   For me, it was close to a perfect read.

Highly recommended.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   The book was purchased by the reviewer.

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The Art of Choosing

The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

The notion of choosing is so complex that there are now two popular books on the subject.   Each was written by an author who is an expert in their field of study.   Scientific writer Jonah Lehrer provides examples of how the brain and neurology affect the choices we make in How We Decide.   Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia University, explores the notion of choice in her recently published book, The Art of Choosing, focusing primarily on psychology; however, she also views choice from the perspectives of business, philosophy, public policy and medicine.

Dr. Iyengar draws upon her personal experience, a vast network of academic associates and other experts, including Lehrer, to achieve her goal of broadening the reader’s perspective and understanding of the implications of the notion of choice.   She encourages her reader to engage in self-exploration in order to make more informed decisions.   In true professorial style, Dr. Iyengar supports her approach with accounts of past scientific experiments, both human and animal.   The tone of her writing in the opening chapter is calm and patient.   It is clear that she expects the reader to pay close attention.

The story of her parents’ marriage in chapter two is engaging and thought-provoking; however, other aspects of this chapter are dry and academic.   There is also a sharp contrast between the description of her parents’ Sikh wedding and what might easily be the text of a general survey course in psychology.   One heavily academic sentence contains 65 words.

The reader must employ perseverance in wading through Dr. Iyengar’s expansive discussion of the concept of the cultural differences between socialism and capitalism as they relate to choice.   Her notion of striving “for a metaphorical multilingualism” takes on a note of proselytizing that seems out of sync for a book that purports to be about making informed personal choices.   There is a disconnect between the colloquial and academic voices that Dr. Iyengar uses as she brings the reader along on her journey of exploring the concept of choice.

By the fourth chapter the book settles into a pleasant, advice-giving counselor’s voice.   There are well-related concepts and suggestions for making personal choices.   While these helpful hints are supported using psychological terms, Dr. Iyengar brings in popular references to illustrate her points such as the television show “Lie to Me” and the rental of movies using Netflix.

The seventh and final chapter brings the matter of choice down to the most personal aspect, that of making medical and other unpleasant decisions.   It is here that the reader is fully engaged via role-playing scenarios concerning life and death.   The concepts of worth and value are well developed and they lead the reader to the inevitable conclusion that choice involves price and responsibility.   Clearly, there is no surefire solution to the challenge of making a selection given the wide array of choices available today, whether it is among the many breakfast cereals in the supermarket or in deciding which path to take in life.

The Art of Choosing illustrates several approaches to making sense of the puzzle of life that so many authors and readers find challenging.   This book does a good job of providing an overall survey of the topic and, although a bit disjointed, provides the reader with food for thought.   However, if this reviewer were asked to choose which book someone with an interest in the subject should purchase, it would be How We Decide.   Author Jonah Lehrer begins each chapter with a compelling vignette that illustrates the aspect of decision-making being addressed.   His writing style is smooth, authoritative and entertaining.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer is well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

 The Art of Choosing is available from Twelve Books and in audiobook form from Hachette Audio.   How We Decide is available in trade paperback (Mariner Books, $14.95, 320 pages) and as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.

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