“I keep on spending too much!” Or, over-eating, gambling, drinking, getting in bad relationships; fill in the blank, you know what I’m talking about! We all do it to some extent. We make, but don’t keep, New Year’s Resolutions. We go to a big-box store and walk out spending three times more than we intended. We tell ourselves not to drink so much, or eat so much, or stay away from certain kinds of people that aren’t good for us. We make decisions that seemed OK at the time (or so we told ourselves), but don’t work out so well in the long term.
But, why do we do things that aren’t rational, even when we know it? Can we change it?
Brain science tells us that there are two major systems involved in decision-making, aptly named “System 1” and “System 2”. (No, Dr. Seuss was not involved in the studies, but he did have some things to say about decision-making! See The Cat in the Hat.)
System 1 is primarily located in the limbic area, what we used to call “the reptilian brain”. It is largely automatic, instinctual, and unconscious. This is very important because that is a part of the brain that keeps us alive in dangerous situations and makes sure we pay attention to things like hunger, procreation, and rest. It is also hedonistic and mainly considers whether a possible action will make us feel good or satisfy a need. Oh, and it doesn’t “think” using words! So, forget about trying to convince System 1 to be rational!
System 2 is primarily located in the frontal area of the brain. This is one of the last parts of the brain to develop in the transition from childhood to adulthood. If you wonder why your teenager looks sort of like an adult, but certainly doesn’t act like an adult; that’s why! These areas of the brain use conscious, logical “thought”. This is where our adult ability to reflect, deliberate, and analyze is happening. Unfortunately, it works much slower than System 1. In a race between the two, System 2 will always lose. It takes more energy and resources than System 1. It is also in the part of our skull that is quite sensitive to injury (e.g., concussions, sports injuries) and infection. Because it was the last part of our human brain to evolve, many scientists believe it is more prone to processing errors, too.
So, that part of our brain that makes us most “human” is also the part that is most sensitive to being harmed and having functional errors.
A couple of interesting studies drive home the point:
In a 2012 study, a University of Iowa neuroscientist and marketing (!) expert put subjects in an MRI and had them do two self-control tasks. One of them had them ignore words flashing on a screen. This was an easy task and everyone could do it for a long time.
But, the second task had them choose between two tasks for the one they preferred (like, “coffee” or “tea”). Both tasks were presented many times while the researchers viewed their brains. They found that after being confronted with many decisions, the parts of the brain that make decisions became exhausted! They stopped working well.
In these illustrations of a brain in the “easy” condition, the anterior cingulate, which recognizes that self-control is needed, and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortices (one of each side), which manages self-control, are both active and functioning.
But, in these images of a brain in the more difficult task, after making many decisions, we see that the parts that tell us we need to control ourselves and the parts that manage self-control, have become exhausted. They simply aren’t working very well.
Impulsive decisions that make us immediately feel good are made, regardless of the longer-term consequences.
They also found that those individuals whose brains were most likely to become exhausted, were also more likely to choose sugary, unhealthy snacks rather than ones with more nutritional staying power!
A second study tells us that these have important differences in the real world. The researchers studied judges who were making many parole decisions in a day, according to how soon the decision was made after the judge had a food break. If the decision was made sooner after the judge had eaten versus later, the judge was far more likely to make the decision in favor of parole! (Keeping the facts of the cases equivalent.) Apparently, making sure that the judge’s brain isn’t hungry makes a difference in the outcome of the case.
When making good decisions is important, some of the take-home lessons are:
- Don’t make too many important decisions at the same time. Spread them out, with a break in between.
- Make sure that we’ve been well fed with healthy food. Avoid sugary food and drink and other simple carbs. Our brain wears out faster than with high proteins and complex fats.
- Know what you’re trying to decide and keep it limited to that. If you’re shopping, take a list and keep to it! If you’re having a night at a casino, take only the amount of cash you’re willing to lose and leave the credit and debit cards at home.
- Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs (yes, cannabis, too!) as they reduce the effectiveness of the frontal lobe.
If you’ve tried these simple tips and they haven’t been enough, or if you had long-standing problems with decision-making, or suspect your brain has been injured, you might have something that’s keeping you from being your best.
Do you still need some help? That’s where the professionals at Brain Health Northwest can help. We have specialized tests, including brain imaging, and specific treatments to improve the functioning of the decision-making areas. They can also help people with already healthy brains, do even better! Give us a call or drop us an email. Making good decisions that help you be happy, successful, and intentional is what we’re all about.