April 12, 2013
Process of Decision Making on Neuroscientific Lens
There is something unique about how we come up with our choices. None rival our capacity for self-consciously weighing all the options, imagining potential outcomes and arriving at a choice. Jonah Lehrer goes over the dynamics of decision making with a fine-tooth comb. Based on the findings on neuroscience and behavioral psychology, he analyzes how one reaches a decision through emotional and rational thought process. While many scientists and philosophers have believed in the practicality of the economic man, Lehrer says it is not always true. Advancement in neuroscience provided scientific proof that emotions exert a strong influence on decisions.
The brain is the most critical part of the human body. Its complex mechanisms drive our very existence and we as humans are the evolutionary paragons of its incredible power. Jonah Lehrer in his book How We Decide explores our decision-making processes under a neurological lens. Contrary to popular thought, we are not wholly rational beings. Instead, our decisions rely upon a mix of neurological factors.
For thousands of years philosophers and scientists have been characterizing human decision-making as being either a completely “rational” process or a completely “emotional” process, believing that it is either a carefully deliberative system or an irrational system based on gut instinct. But as modern-day scientists peel back the layers of the mind, light is being shed on our decision making process and as it turns out, we employ a mixture of emotional and rational thought.
The brain has two areas, the emotional or limbic brain and the logical neo-cortex brain. Lehrer first explores the limbic brain and the important role it plays in decision-making. The emotional brain is necessary for judgment. There are many documented cases of patients who after removal of portions of their limbic system are rendered incapable of any kind of decision-making. The emotional brain is primarily used for complex, swift decisions such as whether to pass the ball or take the shot. This unconscious, split-second decision-making relies upon the “dopamine feedback system.” Patterns are wired into our minds through chemical changes in dopamine that consequently steer our judgment. Additionally mirror neurons cause us to emotionally connect with the outcomes of our decisions, they give us the ability to empathize. When researchers in Oregon showed citizens a poster with a malnourished child and a poster with rational facts about starvation, donations were on average double for the poster showing the child.
The rational brain is just as necessary for judgment as the emotional brain. It is responsible for creative thinking. The neo-cortex is the device used to develop associations between the pieces of information we absorb throughout our lifetimes, our “creative process”. But the rational brain is subject to influence by our limbic system. Too much emotion clouds judgment and that is why controlling emotions in high-stress situations is often the key to success. The rational brain has some control over its emotional counterpart, and as Lehrer describes it engages in chemical warfare with itself. Things we like stimulate the release of dopamine by the limbic system and our neo-cortex counters this by triggering a release of insula.
The rational brain although necessary, has flaws. The conscious mind is effective at synthesizing small amounts of information at a time, but extremely complex decisions run the risk of being grossly oversimplified, thus leading to sub-par decision-making. This can be seen in sports. When the mind tries to take over complex behaviors we choke, our unconscious limbic brain is much more effective. The rational brain can also make illogical decisions. For example financial decisions are quite often contextualized. Lehrer presents an experiment conducted by the University of