The process our brain goes through when we make decisions is incredibly complicated and has all kinds of factors behind it. That said, if you’re looking for a quick summation of what happens in your brain when you make a decision, Wired has you covered.
Picture: Duncan Hall/Flickr
In a new book called 30-Second Brain, writer science Christian Jarrett explains how the brain comes to a decision with a quick story:
From Plato’s charioteer controlling the horse of passion, to Freud’s instinctual id suppressed by the ego, there’s a long tradition of seeing reason and emotion as being in opposition to one another. Translating this perspective to neuroscience, one might imagine that successful decision making depends on the rational frontal lobes controlling the animalistic instincts arising from emotional brain regions that evolved earlier (including the limbic system, found deeper in the brain). But the truth is quite different — effective decision making is not possible without the motivation and meaning provided by emotional input. Consider Antonio Damasio’s patient, “Elliott.” Previously a successful businessman, Elliott underwent neurosurgery for a tumour and lost a part of his brain — the orbitofrontal cortex — that connects the frontal lobes with the emotions. He became a real life Mr. Spock, devoid of emotion. But rather than this making him perfectly rational, he became paralysed by every decision in life. Damasio later developed the somatic marker hypothesis to describe how visceral emotion supports our decisions. For instance, he showed in a card game that people’s fingers sweat prior to picking up from a losing pile, even before they recognise at a conscious level that they have made a bad choice.
Basically, feelings lay the groundwork for reason. We know that because brain-damaged patients who don’t have emotions can’t make decisions. We’ve seen how emotions affect decisions in all kinds of ways, but it’s nice to see it summed up so succinctly.