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  • Patricia Faust

Your Brain and Decision-making



There is an overwhelming amount of information related to the process of decision-making and the brain. I will try to simplify the many aspects of making a decision. Researchers are discovery new complex interactions on a cellular level all the way to the systems approach of brain function. The cellular approach is very complex, and I will leave that to neuroscientists to sort out. I will review the processes that occur in the brain when we are making a decision.

As much as we would believe that this process is straightforward, research is indicating just the opposite. For many years, neuroscience considered decision-making as a purely rational, economic process. We looked for the rewards or the risks associated with the options available to guide us in making a decision. As it turns out, we are not Vulcans, but humans and the process was more complicated than imagined. The traditional view did not include the role of intuition and emotions. Decision-making is not a rational process. People who have sustained damage to the part of the brain that generates emotions are not able to make decisions.

The Nitty-Gritty of the Decision-making Process

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of how the brain functions in the decision-making process. In a February 2015 study, from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University in japan, found that a key part of the brain involved in decision making is the striatum. The striatum is part of the basal ganglia which makes up the inner core of the brain and processes both decision-making and subsequent actions. The striatum has been divided into three regions: 1. Ventral 2. Dorsomedial and 3. Dorsolateral. Each region plays a role in

1.Motivation 2. Adaptive Decisions and 3. Routine Actions respectively. The surprise finding for researchers was that even though the three regions of the striatum have distinct roles, they work together in different phases of decision-making.

The Prefrontal Cortex – the Area for Rational Thinking

Good decision-making is a conscious and deliberative process. Now the area tagged for rational thinking – the prefrontal cortex – show increased activity during all decision-making processes. Studies indicate that the interactions between the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex not only play a role when a person needs to decide between several options during goal-directed behavior but are also active during flexible decision-making. However, the prefrontal cortex declines with aging. As we get older, we have limited resources to deal with the complex decisions and the greater quantity of information with which we are faced. As such, we tend to rely on mental shortcuts – heuristics, also known as rule of thumb.

The Role of Emotion in Decision-making

So now we know what the inner workings of the brain are when we must make a decision. But we also determined that, as humans, we need emotion to make this process happen. It seems that emotions drive our decisions and success may depend on our ability to understand and interpret them. When emotions are triggered in the brain, the nervous system responds by creating feelings in your body (gut feeling) and certain thoughts in your mind. 94-96 percent of our decisions occur in the subconscious area of the brain – below our level of awareness. Many of our decisions are informed by our emotional response because that is what emotions are supposed to do: appraise and summarize an experience and inform our actions.

Here is where it gets tricky. Emotions are not particularly refined or precise, but their speed and utility make up for that. Emotions, when they are not all jumbled, provide information in a simple, quick way that is not dependent on a lot of cognition. So, they quickly tell you if a situation will work for you or not work for you and how you might approach it. Do you pay attention to this internal non-rational thinking system? Why mess with a good thing. The ability of our brain to scan the environment and reinforce what we are seeing or send up ‘red flags’ has been an evolutionary process. We are constantly inundated with information coming in and requiring our attention. We don’t have the time to process all that information consciously, but our brain is processing it passively and unconsciously. When your brain picks up what it believes is a ‘red flag’ it will send a vague alert by way of feelings and thoughts generated by an emotion. Your emotions serve as a cueing system – an attention directing system associated with physiological changes that prepare you to take action. However, this isn’t a fail-safe system. It has many false alarms; emotional misfires. Then you need to evaluate your response to determine if it is appropriate. Your emotional system can be a huge advantage in making decisions if you make proper use of it. Evolution has given you a particular information system that you can use – a summary of information about the environment and an aggregate of a huge amount of data about a situation. Emotions can tell you something about the world that you may not have accurately perceived in another way (Psychology Today, December 2010).

How the Brain Decides on Action

Okay – we have seen how the brain functions and how emotions play an important role. Now let’s look at how the brain decides on an action. Jan Glasher, lead author and visiting associate at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena discovered in a study that “Cognitive control and value-based decision-making tasks appear to depend on different brain regions within the prefrontal cortex”. (see the section on brain function above). Your valuation system is always providing you with information about what’s rewarding around you, and what is distracting. Cognitive control is what keeps this network in check. It helps you maintain your goal despite lots of distractions. When the cognitive control regions are working well, distractions are ignored, and behaviors occur in an appropriate manner. When the valuation network is working appropriately, decisions are made that are likely to be beneficial in the long run. “Both networks need to be in balance to function properly together,” Glasher says. “If one fails, then the other one gets out of step as well and problems are likely to arise.”

The Takeaways about Decision-making

So, what are the takeaways from all of this information about decision-making. It appears that there is a lot more going on in the subconscious guiding us to make decisions. Our emotions are driving the decision. This area of the brain rules our ultimate thinking process – it is not what we think and say, but rather what we feel and want. Wow, we are complex!

References:

Bergland,C. (May 6, 2015). The neuroscience of making a decision. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201505/the-neuroscience-making-decision

Lamia,M. (December 31, 2010). Like it or not emotions will drive the decisions you make today. from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/intense-emotions-and-strong-feelings/201012/it-or-not-emotions-will-drive-the-decisions-you-make-today

Szalavitz,M. (September 4, 2012). Making choices: how your brain decides. Retrieved April 14, 2016 from http://healthland.time.com/2012/09/04/making-choices-how-your-brain-decides/

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