27 January, 2011

Pursuit #60: Brain Wars

The psychiatrist asked his patient if he had trouble making decisions. The patient responded, "Well, doc, yes and no." That is me more often than I'd like to admit.

I am listening to a book on CD (aka the most convenient way to read these days). It is called How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. As someone who has OFTEN suffered from paralysis by analysis of mundane things like which cereal to buy (as the author mentioned prompted him to research the topic for this book) or difficult things like what to do with my life, I felt I needed to read this book. From it I found that in its "default" setting, your brain is basically at war with itself.

This is not a regular self-help book. The book discusses how the brain is ever soooooo complex, and therefore what goes on in it during different decision-making moments varies based on the type of decision you're trying to make. So there is no one tried and true method to decision-making that can be used across the board.  Our brain wars pit emotions v. rationality, our gut instincts v. our reasoned thoughts. However there are lots of different emotions involved coming from different brain areas. Our prefrontal cortex often tries to mediate and integrate all these emotions plus all the other information the brain is sending, so we can make a rational decision. But when we try to quiet the disquiet in our brains by shutting off one area in order to make a decision, we ignore certain emotions or override them completely and over-rationalize. And actually, it's our EMOTIONS that we should really be listening to when making complex decisions.

Our prefrontal cortices can only take in about 7 pieces of information at one time (7!), so it easily gets overwhelmed. No wonder I get stalled in trying to pick out cookies and cereal - there are waaay too many options for my brain to handle.

"Our emotional brain is actually much better at taking in lots and lots of information. Summarizing lots of data very efficiently, and saying, 'Here's a feeling. Don't worry about all the details. Here's a feeling. We've already taken those details into account.'"
The trick is trying to figure out what emotions to listen to in which situations. But armed with this information about the mechanics of my brain, how easily overwhelmed it can become by too much info, and how to trust my emotions then should make me a better decision-maker, yeah? Well, in reality it did - I actually was able to apply some of this self-knowledge of my brain and emotions to decide to make a big change in my life (grad school!). And for once, I really think it's the right one!

Q&A with the Author on Amazon
NPR interview with the author
CBS News article about the author/book


Sokphal said...

Yeah! Congrats on the decision! :)

molly said...

I have that book! I love Jonah Lerher, I read his blog. I'm kind of obsessed.

And huzzah for you, my friend.