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About and slow

William Brody

If you haven't had a chance to read Daniel Kahneman's new book, Thinking Fast and Slow, I highly recommend it to you. Dr. Kahneman is one of only two people to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics who is not an economist; rather, he is a behavioral psychologist. Many of his landmark studies have pointed out the irrationality in our decision making that violates the well-accepted "laws" of economics—like supply and demand.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman outlines evidence for the existence of two separate "functions" within the brain—one that makes judgments and decisions quickly but often highly irrationally and the other that uses a slower, more methodical process of analytical thinking. The insight I gained from reading his book is how irrationally biased our decision-making process can be. Even when we are alerted before the fact that our brain is likely to be biased in determining some outcome, we are often unable to overcome that bias.

There are many interesting studies of human behavior presented in the book, but the one observation that Kahneman makes repeatedly is our inability to make accurate, or even semi-accurate predictions of the future. While we are great at analyzing the past and understanding the present, we don't do better than chance in trying to opine what will happen next. Embracing this uncertainty, as I see it, is crucial to fostering creative research that leads to surprising discoveries—just the sorts of breakthroughs you've read about in this issue of Inside Salk.

People often ask me, "Bill, what will be the next big breakthrough that Salk scientists are working on?" And my answer simply is, "I haven't a clue." While I would like to sound erudite and provide some predictions, scientific breakthroughs are by definition not predictable. Would we have known a decade ago that we could make stem cells from a small piece of skin? I am sure some people predicted this, but the experiment that led to this discovery wasn't even focused on this challenge; the result happened in a completely serendipitous way and has since changed the face of stem cell research—and for the better, I should say.

The key for the Salk is simply to encourage our young scientists to try bold experiments, pursue the unpredictable and keep their eyes open for unexpected results.