How we really make decisions

Hello and welcome to this month’s neuro blog!

Are you enjoying the summer? I’m writing from the South of France and it’s just blissful!

Today, I’d like to address decision-making. Remember that I posited in an early post that “there is no thinking which is not emotional which in turn implies that our decisions and behaviours are rooted in emotion with any rationale therefore representing only an ex-post rationalization” (for more, see what your brain is for). Let’s unpack this statement a bit more, shall we? In that post, I presented a simplified model of the brain whereby any stimulus is first processed by the limbic/emotional system. Let me add here that another key organising principle of the brain is ‘association’.

Consider a brain’s first experience of a glass. That glass shape will be at least partially memorised but what will matter more to that brain is the great relief which drinking from that glass brought as the owner of that brain was parched. And so that first experience of ‘glass’ is a positive one from a physical and emotional standpoint. Arrives the second experience of a glass. But that glass looks different. No matter: the brain recognises that this second glass looks enough like the first one and therefore creates an association between the two experiences. The second experience of ‘glass’ gets connected to the first not just because the brain links the two shapes but also because the second experience is coloured with the emotional tonality of the preceding experience. The second time around, that brain is therefore positively biased in favour of ‘glass’ and looks forward to drinking from it.

The renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio joined forces with psychologist Antoine Bechara in 2005 to propose that our brains hold the memories of how we felt – physiologically and emotionally – about events in so-called ‘somatic markers’. When a new event presents, they contend, it is specifically the ventromedial prefrontal cortex which ‘reads’ our somatic markers and associates what seems to the brain to be the relevant reaction to the new situation. In that sense, our reactions to situations are predetermined by how we experienced similar events in the past. Clearly, there is a dynamic process as a new situation may be novel enough that it modifies our experience. Going back to the experience of ‘glass’, one can imagine that the third experience thereof – whereby the glass slips and falls, shattering in a million pieces or whereby the content of the glass is bitter – would modify that brain’s somatic marker to reduce the positive emotional content present till then.

What implications for decision-making? It means that, based on past experience, possibly encoded in somatic markers, we selectively attend to what our brain assumes is worthy of consideration based on the emotional value assigned during those previous experiences which our brain views as similar to the current one. We process new situations not on their own merit but in ways that fit with any pre-existing knowledge, a concept known as cognitive bias. Below is a diagram from one of my neuroscience lectures contrasting how we think we make decisions with how we actually do:

On the right-hand side, and linked to the blue arrows, how we tell ourselves that we make decisions and on the left-hand side, and connected by the pink arrows, our actual decision-making process from a neuroscience standpoint. Neuroscience illuminates just how much goes on beyond our conscious awareness, challenges our sense of authorship of our decision-making and transforms our dearly-beloved notions of choice and free will into questionable constructs.

So what now? If my decisions are not as deliberate as I used to think they were, if my decision-making process is not as broad-minded, as far-ranging as I used to believe, what then? Well: diversity. Whether in the personal sphere or in the professional arena, if your decision is to be genuinely broad-based, then consult: bring into the equation other brains with different live experiences, different somatic markers for similar experiences and therefore different biases!

While we might be individually conditioned by our past and collectively by our culture, we can choose to involve others into our decisions who do not share our past or our culture!

If you’d like to tell me about your behaviour and/or your brain, you will find me at In the meantime, relax and let your brain look after you!

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