We choose all the time, hundreds of times a day, saying yes to this and no to that. Some decisions are trivial—opting for whole wheat instead of rye—while others are consequential, life–changing ones such as deciding to relocate across country for a job, or choosing whom to marry. For all our vaunted human intelligence, however, some of us sail through life pretty much ignorant of how profoundly this or that choice affects its trajectory. Too often we fail to think through an option’s ramifications—the road taken, or not—not realizing that sometimes yes and no are short words in need of lengthy thought.
The basic problem is this: Most of us consider making decisions to be an analytical skill, a rational weighing of pros and cons. But applying intelligence is not enough because choice is intimately tied to emotion. If we want to be happy and not drive ourselves crazy second–guessing, then choices need to be attuned to context, desire, and temperament. It sounds daunting when framed this way, perhaps too abstract, but it isn’t hard. You simply learn to self–observe.
Being a neurologist, I naturally want to talk about what’s happening in the brain when we set out to “make up our minds.” But I’m not going to blather on about the amygdala or the prefrontal cortex. Such shoptalk doesn’t illuminate what to do in a practical way nor steer us toward the next action to take. Instead I focus on five points that can save you from impulsive decisions that you may later regret. Keep these in mind and you’ll start making more satisfying choices that lead to happiness and the goals you set for yourself.
Most importantly (1) the brain has multiple ways of weighing decisions. However, (2) these different approaches are competitive rather than complementary. Use the wrong one in a given circumstance (which we almost always do), and the result is not what we had hoped for. The trick is learning which approach to use in a given circumstance.
We live in a miraculous world of technology. But no amount of gear can overcome the biological limitation that (3) today’s brain operates pretty much the way it did in the time of our distant ancestors. Early humans weighed decisions in a far simpler and more stable environment than the one we navigate in today. This was true even a mere few generations ago. Today, however, life overwhelms us with too many choices. Each day contains a daunting overload of e–mail, tweets, texts, and apps, plus the demand that we be continually available to work, family, and social circles.
Leisure time, to say nothing of down time when we can clear our heads, has become an endangered species. The problem is that the brain has a finite amount of bandwidth and each day contains a finite amount of time. Our heads can’t handle everything we try to cram in—one reason why we make decisions that we wish we hadn’t.
We also (4) fail to account for how desire shapes choice. For instance, how are you going to recognize happiness, even when it hits you over the head, if you have never decided beforehand on what conditions would make you happy? The concept is basic, yet universally overlooked. Without mulling it over you set yourself up to careen from one course of action to another, none of which work out. The corollary is that it is easier to say no when you have prepared yourself in advance to not want something, and distinguished beforehand between true and fleeting desires. If you understand that the latter are glittery and false, you will never feel that you are “losing” or “giving up” the thing to which you say no.
Lastly, (5) the brain contains multiple minds, a bold claim I flesh out in a forthcoming book. Briefly, the consciousness we think of as “me”—a singular, in–command self—is not the only agent acting on our behalf. Like the Wizard of Oz, other actors are busy behind the curtain. The various and separate aspects of mind, however, are inaccessible to conscious introspection. Think of a magician’s trick: The audience never perceives all the steps in its causal sequence—the special contraptions, the fake compartments, the hidden accomplices. It sees only the final effect. Likewise, the real sequence of far flung brain events causing a thought or an action is massively more than the sequence we perceive. Yet we explain ourselves with the shortcut, “I wanted to do it, so I did it,” when the neurological truth is, “My actions are determined by forces I do not understand.”
The analogy of hidden moves in the magician’s trick underscores that much more is going on in our mind than is apparent on the surface. And while we normally think of causation as an idea of what one is going to do, causation also involves desire. Thus, discerning what we want is not as easy as we imagine because motivation lies obscured beneath the surface. Ironically, the very anatomy of the brain assures that we often act at cross–purposes with ourselves. While it is not necessary to wade through the neurological details behind this strange but fascinating way our heads are constructed, it is necessary to appreciate that an invisible force exists that pushes you in certain directions. It is beyond the scope of this column to illustrate how one discerns what those directions are. But it can be learned, and I’ll revisit the idea in future columns. Once you get oriented to where your true desires lie, you can better align your choices in order to achieve them.