So-called free will and the emotionally fraught business of choice.
Every decision we make is arrived at through hugely complex neurological processing. Although it feels as though you have a choice, the action that you ‘decide’ to take is entirely dictated by automatic neural activity. Brain imaging studies show that a person’s action can be predicted by their brain activity up to 10 seconds before they themselves become aware they are going to act.
This has huge implications for our concept of free will, which scientists and philosophers are still grappling with today. Multiple neuroscientific studies show that even those important decisions that feel worked out are just as automatic as knee-jerk reactions (although more complex). The sense of volition seems to be a clever illusion perpetrated by our brains, and the illusion is useful because it gives us a sense of responsibility – and causes us to moderate our behaviour accordingly.
Decision-making starts with the amygdala: a set of two almond-shaped nuclei buried deep within the brain, which generate emotion. The amygdala registers the information streaming in through our senses and responds to it in a split second, sending signals throughout the brain. These produce an urge to run, fight, freeze or grab, according to how the amygdala values various stimuli.
Before we act on the amygdala’s signals, however, the information is usually processed by more sophisticated brain areas, including some that produce conscious thoughts and emotions. Areas concerned with recognition work out what’s going on, those concerned with memory compare it with previous experiences, and those concerned with reasoning, judging and planning get to work on constructing various action plans. The best plan – if we are lucky – is then selected and executed. If any of this process goes wrong, we are likely to dither, or do something silly.
The various stages of decision-making are marked by different types of brain activity. Fast (gamma) waves, with frequencies of 25 to 100 Hz, produce a keen awareness of the multiple factors that need to be taken into account to arrive at a decision. If you are trying to choose a sandwich, for instance, gamma waves generated in various cells within the ‘taste’ area of the brain bring to mind and compare the taste of ham, hummus, wholemeal, sourdough, and so on. Although it may seem useful to be aware of the full range of choices, too much information makes decision-making more difficult, so irrelevant factors get dismissed quickly and unconsciously. At the sandwich counter, the cheese and tomato option might trigger only the tiniest flurry of neuronal excitement.
After this surge of activity marking the comparison stage, the brain switches to slow-wave activity (12 to 30 Hz). This extinguishes most of the gamma activity, leaving just a single ‘hotspot’ of gamma waves which marks the chosen option.
Although there is no ‘you’ outside your brain to direct what it’s doing, you can help it to make good decisions by placing yourself in a situation which is likely to make the process run more smoothly. Doing something that is physically or mentally stimulating before making a decision will help your brain produce the initial gamma waves that generate awareness of the competing options. Getting over-excited, on the other hand, will prevent the switch to the slow brainwaves, making it much harder to single out a choice. Subjecting yourself to high emotion may also warm up the connecting pathways from the amygdala to the action areas of your brain, causing panicky or impulsive behaviour.
Tune up your decision-making
- Make a list of your bad decisions and look for links. Were they all compromises, for example, or made hastily? When you identify a link, analyse the mental strategy that you used, and try deliberately using the opposite strategy for a while. If the problem seems to be haste, for example, delay the decision, and be ready to acknowledge any vaguer, subtler factors that come to mind.
- Brainstorm before a decision, then sleep on it before acting. Like creative thought, good decision-making benefits from unconscious incubation, in which the brain drifts around, rummaging through memories that might be useful. Sleep is an extreme case of incubation, and your dreams may throw up important clues that make your decision clearer upon waking.
- Mentally step back from the situation and ask yourself what others might do. This will force your brain to look at the situation from a new perspective, which may reveal factors you had not previously taken into account.
- Write down your favoured option, then highlight the emotional words. If you delete the highlighted words, is the decision still looking good? If not, these words are your real reasons for the decision. ‘Attractive’ or ‘exciting’ may be valid factors in deciding on a date, but not so good if you’re choosing an accountant.