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The Neuroscience of Making a Decision

Various brain regions work together during the decision-making process.

This post is in response to
What Triggers Cravings?
 Viorel Sima/Shutterstock
Source: Viorel Sima/Shutterstock

In a recent Psychology Today post, “What Triggers Cravings?", I wrote about the latest scientific research surrounding cravings and addiction. Neuroscience suggests that addressing the decision-making process itself is key to breaking bad habits and addiction.

Understanding the neuroscience behind making a decision can be helpful when targeting new behaviors and changing bad habits. When you reach a fork in the road and need to make the right decision for your long-term health and well-being, using the brain science behind decision-making is a useful tool.

Hopefully, having a better understanding of the neuroscience behind decision-making will help you make decisions that lead to positive outcomes in the future and avoid self-destructive choices fueled by substance abuse, if you're an addict.

Decision-making is in the locus of your control. You have the power to break patterns of behavior simply by making better decisions. You can change your mind and your actions at any time. Even when you're stuck in a cycle of rut-like thinking and behavior, a change of attitude and decision-making can turn your life around.

Based on the importance of all types of decision-making in our lives, I’ve compiled the latest research on the neuroscience of making a decision in this blog post. Below is a “meta-analysis” of various research on the neuroscience of making a decision and some advice on how to make better decisions using mindfulness.

Is Addiction a Pathology of Poor Decision-Making?

There is a growing contingent of researchers who believe that addiction is a pathology of poor decision-making caused by abnormal interactions between various brain regions responsible for making decisions based on potential outcomes.

Source: ml/Shutterstock

Philip K. Dick once said, "Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error of judgment." The latest neuroscientific findings on addiction show that faulty brain connections related to decision-making can lead to addictive behaviors and relapse.

Alain Dagher, from McGill University, is leading a charge to shift the focus on cravings and addiction towards abnormalities in the decision-making regions of the brain.

Dagher's research shows that craving a drug such as nicotine can literally be illuminated using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). When the brain is determining the value and cost of specific actions, the perceived value of smoking a cigarette activates the brain areas used for decision-making in people who are addicted to nicotine.

In particular, a brain region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was found to regulate cigarette craving in response to smoking cues. The degree of nicotine cravings and addiction was reflected by the intensity of the brain imaging response. The fMRI results successfully predicted subsequent addictive behavior and smoking habits.

Dagher's findings suggest that addiction may result from aberrant connections between the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and other brain regions in individuals who are more susceptible to compulsive or addictive behavior.

The Striatum Is a Decision-Making Hub

A February 2015 study, from the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University in Japan, found that a key part of the brain involved in decision-making, called the striatum, appears to operate hierarchically within its three different sub-regions.

The striatum is part of the basal ganglia, which makes up the inner core of the brain and processes both decision-making and subsequent actions. Neuroscientists divide the striatum into three regions: 1. Ventral (VS) 2. Dorsomedial (DMS) and 3. Dorsolateral (DLS). Each region plays a distinctive role in: 1. Motivation 2. Adaptive Decisions and 3. Routine Actions, respectively.

The findings of this study, "Distinct Neural Representation in the Dorsolateral, Dorsomedial, and Ventral Parts of the Striatum during Fixed- and Free-Choice Tasks," were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

In an unexpected twist, the researchers at OIST found the three parts of the striatum work together in a coordinated hierarchy. Although the three different regions in the striatum have distinct roles, they ultimately harmonize and work together in different phases of decision-making.

In an animal experiment, the ventral striatum (VS) was most active at the beginning of a decision-making process. The dorsomedial striatum (DMS) changed firing levels next, as the expected reward or consequence by making the decision to turn left or right in a maze was considered. Lastly, the dorsolateral striatum (DLS) fired short bursts at varying times throughout the task, suggesting it is gearing up the motor movements required once a decision is made and action is taken.

The findings suggest that the rats in the experiment analyzed the potential benefit of choosing the left or right turn during the DMS phase. This analysis was constantly updated after each trial run. To the researchers' surprise, there was little difference in DMS and DLS firing during fixed or free-choice tasks in this study. These animal studies offer clues for the windows of opportunity humans have for better decison-making.

Source: Alphaspirit/Shutterstock

The Prefrontal Cortex Shows Activation During All Decision-Making

In 2014, researchers in Switzerland discovered that the prefrontal cortex not only shows increased activity during decisions requiring self-control, but during all decision-making processes. Sarah Rudorf and Todd Hare of the Department of Economics of the University of Zurich were able to identify specific regions of the prefrontal cortex that are most active in the process of making a decision.

The study, “Interactions between Dorsolateral and Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Underlie Context-Dependent Stimulus Valuation in Goal-Directed Choice," was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Previous studies have shown that a specific network in the brain is active when a person has to decide between various choices in different situations. This research emphasizes the importance of the interaction between neurons in two different brain areas within the prefrontal cortex.

The results of this study indicate that the neuronal interactions between the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex not only play a central role when a person needs to decide between several options during goal-directed behavior, but are also active during flexible decision-making.

These findings refute a previous belief that activation of the prefrontal cortex only occurs when self-control is required during decision-making between conflicting preferences. In a press release, lead author Sarah Rudorf explained,

Decisions that require self-control are extremely important, as they directly affect a person's bodily, social, or financial welfare. The determination of the mechanisms in the brain that are not only involved in decisions requiring self-control but that are also used in general decisions could open new points of interaction for therapies.

The findings of this research could help develop interventions that support certain decision-making skills in difficult situations that depend on self-control, such as, substance abuse.

Conclusion: Mindfulness Can Help You Avoid Self-Destructive Decision-Making

A 2013 study found that 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation can help people make smarter choices. The findings from the Wharton School of business were published in the journal Psychological Science.

A series of studies led by Andrew Hafenbrack found that mindfulness helped counteract deep-rooted tendencies and lead to better decision-making. The researchers found that a brief period of mindfulness allowed people to make more rational decisions by considering the information available in the present moment, which led to more positive outcomes in the future.

The next time that you need to make a decision, take a few deep breaths and think about the pros and cons of your next move in a pragmatic and mindful way. Then, do the right thing for your well-being.

Using mindfulness could give various regions of your striatum and prefrontal cortex time to relay the true "neuroeconomic" costs of a decision and help you make smarter choices. Mindful decision-making can derail compulsive or addictive patterns of behavior and take you down a path that's in your best interest for long-term health, happiness, and overall well-being.

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