Why Do I Keep Making Bad Decisions?!

Why Do I Keep Making Bad Decisions?!

“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:


  1. Don’t make too many important decisions at the same time. Spread them out, with a break in between.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Get Off Social Media and Reclaim Your Life

Get Off Social Media and Reclaim Your Life

He had become a social media addict. He didn’t realize how much time he was spending on social media sites until one day he noticed that his hands would launch the pages in his browser automatically, before he was conscious of what they were doing. He would check Facebook and Twitter at the bus stop, in the bathroom, at dinner, and he would leave the browser open at work. He also noticed a creeping depression that was making him feel less connection socially rather than more. Online friends seemed to have time to contribute little rewarding hits of dopamine via the “like” button, but they were always too busy to show up in person. It seemed that everyone was posting pictures of good times out in the real world, and he was feeling sorry for himself spending all his time scrolling through their pictures on his phone.


Finally, after reading a news article on social media and depression, he woke up. This was an addiction. And, as he learned later, it took root where he had an unmet emotional need.


When is social media a problem?

  • When you struggle with mental or physical health issues as a consequence of the behavior and/or the inability to stop;
  • When you experience difficulties in significant relationships at home or productivity at work because the behavior is so disruptive;
  • When you are unable to stop engaging in the behavior, despite the consequences and your desire to stop.


Sometimes, the problem does not result in the disruptive drama that the above description suggests. Instead, you find yourself not having enough time to do all the activities that you would like to do with your life. It takes you longer than expected to get your work done. You blew off going to the gym so that you could meet your work deadlines. You keep putting off getting back into your hobby. Where are you spending all your time?


The first step is to measure your behavior. Apple has included a tool called Screen Time in their latest version of software for the iPhone. There are third party apps, such as QualityTime and Moment, available for both iPhone and Android. For your laptop or desktop, consider Webtime Tracker or RescueTime to track which applications and web sites are getting most of your attention. Track yourself for a week before coming to any conclusions or making changes. This is your baseline.


The results can be downright scary, and quite motivating.

Did you know that the average person spends over 85 hours a month on their phone alone? That doesn’t include time on a computer for work or school. Isn’t it time that you intentionally reclaim your life?

The next step is to make a decision regarding how you would like to spend your time. For many people, the news is a bigger problem than social media, especially during an election cycle or when there is crisis. What do you consider a reasonable amount of time to consume media, whether social or news?


Next, motivate yourself by creating a list of what you would rather do with the difference between your goals and your actual time use. Never have time to exercise? Why not steal that 45 minutes a day from the time you are spending on your News app and Twitter?


Now comes the hard part: implementing behavioral change. Here are some tricks that might help.


  • The same tracking tools listed above have locks to help you limit your behavior. Only want to spend 30 minutes a day on news? Only want to go to Twitter at the end of the work day? Lock yourself out with time windows and/or time limits. Remove apps from your phone, limiting your engagement to the web.
  • Trick your brain by making social media boring. One great trick for Facebook is to unfollow everyone. Start with the people who come up too frequently in your feed, or those who post content that you really don’t care about. Do this with a few people, groups, and pages every day. Eventually, your feed will become very boring. Without even trying, you will stop going to that page. You can avoid the drama of announcing that you are taking a break. You won’t need to unfriend people or deactivate your account. You have simply eliminated the rewards that feed your behavior. If you really want to check in with a friend, you can CHOOSE to go to their page, rather than being enticed by a clever algorithm.
  • Figure out what need social media serves for you. Often, loneliness or attention-seeking are the result of relational or attachment issues. The wounds suffered during your childhood may yield a sense of insufficiency so that you seek fulfillment through online relationships. ADHD and procrastination may be the result of brain dysregulation.


Recognize that your friends may be resistant to your goals because of their own unmet needs. You may have to set new boundaries. It can be a difficult balance because while it is important to maintain friendships, it is also important to be mindful of how you are spending your time so that you are living an intentional life.


If a friend notices that you haven’t been engaging in an online community and tries to get your attention with a direct message, explain to them that you are making some important changes in your life and you would appreciate their support. It is not a reflection on a change in your friendship, but that you need to prioritize your health and quality of life.


Be careful that online activity does not simply shift from one platform to another. For example, friends may decide that they want to join you off social media, too, and then continue the same volume of communication in email or text. These messages typically arrive through the same applications as work or home communications, making it difficult to place technological limits on apps due to the need to be responsive to clients, kids, and spouses.


Let’s face it – we are all Pavlov’s dog, and the notification light is the new bell.

If friends don’t respect your new boundaries or have their own issues with self-regulation, you may need to train them (Pavlov’s dog again) by only rewarding responses to those messages you deem appropriate to your new communication style. You may need to let them know that you only allocate a certain number of minutes each day to personal email. Apply rules to redirect their emails to folders for you to respond to later.

(With text messages, the only technological option is to block their number; this seems a bit harsh, so hopefully it will not be necessary.)

Monitor and reward yourself for changes in your behavior. Congratulations on taking charge of your screen time and your life! This was not an easy thing you just did.


  • Write down all the activities that you were able to accomplish with your reclaimed time and place them in a prominent location, so you can remind yourself what you have gained.
  • Go do something nice for yourself. Get a massage. Go see a show.
  • Meet or call your friends every month or so to maintain those friendships. Show them your performance stats, thank them for their help, and create new memories together in the real world!


Do you still need help? That’s what we do!

Are you having trouble sticking to the plan because of attention issues? Let’s do some neurofeedback to improve your focus.

Do you feel lonely and disconnected? Let’s talk about the internal dialog that is holding you back.

Do you need an accountability partner? We gotcha! Give us a call to set up an appointment.

We are here to help you to develop the tools to be successful in building an intentional and happy life.

Simple Ways to Improve Your Relationships

Simple Ways to Improve Your Relationships

When someone expresses anger, frustration, or fear is expressed by someone close to you, how do you react?

Do you shut down? Do you feel anxious or fearful?

How it Works

Until age two the human brain is being prepared and primed for emotional connection.

Tiny humans spend most energy on searching and establishing stability and security.

Above all, the tiny human needs our help to do this, especially if they are going to learn, grow and explore their world.

The Problem

When a caregiver unavailable, the little one is distressed and aren’t given what to behave or act.

If the parent is abusive or neglectful the child avoids contact, maybe even preferring a stranger over the caregiver. The child learns to not seek help.

From a caregiver with inconsistent behavior children act chaotic. You will notice extreme shifts from one emotional state to the next.

Fifty percent of babies experience insecure attachments. Without intervention these relational patterns will continue into adulthood.

What’s going on here

Dr. John Gottman, a relationship researcher out of Seattle, shows that people are failing in the area of meta-emotions. Meta-emotions are how one interprets and feels about their emotions.

An example is if someone feels sad, but doesn’t believe it’s ok to feel this sad.

What do I do now


Emotional Coaching takes relationships through a step-by-step processing including:

1) Calming yourself first – Deep breathe and connect with the feeling. The goal here is to calm and relax the emotions.

2) Connect and create safety – Connect emotionally. This is done with touch, tone or attitude. The goal is safety.

3) Empathize – Next, welcome the emotion, and reflect them back. “You look worried,” or if you don’t know the emotion say “I hear how upset you are.”

4) Double-check – Check to see if they feel understood. Ask, “Am I getting that right?”

5) Deepen the conversation – Let yourself feel what the other is feeling. Offer support, continue to validate their emotion, or ask to hear more.

Over time it has been shown people can change their attachment style thereby increasing the quality of their relationships.When you change the lens from which you see the world you create a new narrative, one that helps you understand your past and allows you to evolve and grow today.

When we work together stable and fulfilling relationships occur. If your unsure where to begin try one-on-one sessions with a trained clinician at Brain Health Northwest.