Nietzsche and the Wisdom of Neural Editing (With an Assist to Leonard Lopate)

Illustration by Steve Burnett

As some of you know, I was a guest on The Leonard Lopate Show yesterday on WNYC here in New York. He’s one of the most astute and shrewdly probing interviewers in radio, and I’ve had the pleasure of being on his show a number of times. You never quite know where the conversation is going to go, but it always has direction and ends up in interesting places (you can replay our discussion of wisdom here).

During one of the brief (non-commercial!) breaks, Leonard mentioned that he’d gotten interested in the idea of wisdom, or at least philosophy in general, when he first began to read Friederich Nietzsche. As it turns out, I’d been thumbing through my Wisdom Notebook on the subway ride into Manhattan to do the show, and had been struck by a passage I’d jotted down by Nietzsche, precisely because it was a philosophical echo of something a neuroscientist had mentioned to me when I was working on the book. There wasn’t time to mention it on the radio, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to elaborate here.

The actual passage is from Nietzsche’s Human, All-Too-Human (and I’m grateful to David Shenk’s excellent book The Genius in All of Us for bringing these remarks to my attention). Nietzsche writes:

Artists have a vested interest in our believing in the flash of revelation, the so-called inspiration…[shining] down from heavens as a ray of grace. In reality, the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre, and bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects… All great artists and thinkers [are] great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering. [Shenk, p. 48]

There is a lot of wisdom in those remarks, beginning with the fact that Nietzsche draws a firm connection between good artists and good thinkers. Both rely on a combination of imagination and rigor to arrive at their final destination (the Nobel Prize-winning immunologist Peter Medawar similarly spoke of the balance between imagination and critical thinking as being essential to good science).

The process Nietzsche described reminded me of a conversation I had with Paul Glimcher, who heads the Center for Neuroscience at New York University. Glimcher was making the point (recounted in Wisdom) that in complex decision-making, with multiple appealing choices, you have to “edit” (his word) the choices according to the values you bring to the decision. Glimcher believes that before the brain makes a decision, it has to assign relative value on a common scale for all the options available. And he went on to say—offered more as a speculation, to be fair, but an interesting and perhaps profound one—that attaching value to such a choice requires this process of  editing (which is what Nietzsche, I think, meant by “sifting”): identifying the most important criteria that inform a decision, and then pruning away the possibilities on the basis of that value.

As I tried to convey in Chapter 5 of Wisdom, the way the brain assesses “value” is hugely complicated and is going to be a very hard nut for neuroscientists to crack, which is why a lot of decision-making studies tell an incomplete part of the story. If value is upstream of the decision, so too is wisdom.

Assigning value is also highly subjective, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any rigor to the process. Nietzsche uses three dynamite words, almost tossed off, to describe how a good thinker arrives at a good judgment: Rejects. Selects. Connects.

Rejects: This sounds like the kind of winnowing process that Glimcher describes in the book when he talks about choosing a college. If you know what’s most important to you, it’s easier to edit out or reject options that are not so good. These are value judgments in the commonplace sense, but also value judgments in the neural sense (we just don’t know how value is actually established neurally).

Selects: By eliminating the lesser options, it becomes easier to see the value of the competing options—and easier to select the best one. We know from the classic choice experiments of Iyengar and Lepper that too many choices paralyze us and increase the odds that we’ll be unhappy with our decision. Editing down choices, being parsimonious about possibilities, hones our neural sense of value, which makes decision-making quicker, clearer, and, if you believe the recent research, more satisfying.

Connects: This is in many ways the most interesting word. Good judgment about really important things—wisdom, if you will—is an associative process; it demands creating links between action and consequence, self-interest and group welfare, short-term gains and long-term goals. Indeed, it requires enormous imagination to bind often divergent and contradictory values into a single, coherent, meaningful action.

Connecting self-indulgence or short-sighted gratification to a more impoverished future, or an act of self-sacrifice to a more prosperous future, is not only an act of imagination; it is one of the most unique qualities of the human brain. And Nietzsche is right: it’s very hard work. Buy Windows 7 Ultimate
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