April 2009 Posts

Making Decisions and the Mind

True to form I’ve been splitting my time between two books. The first, How We Decide is a pop psych/neuroscience overview of the latest and greatest ideas as to how we process information. Author Jonah Lehrer, a 28 year old science writer is an easy to read and well thought out author. What strikes me most so far in the book is the topic of emotions and the importance they play in the decision making process. We process an overwhelming amount of information on a regular basis. We continually evaluate the positives and negatives of every situation. It turns out, from what scientists have found, emotions actually play a critical role in the decision making process. Emotions help us decide by showing preference. To take this a step further, when people for one reason or another loose the ability to use their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), the part of the brain that is known for emotional processing, a few abilities become unavailable. First, they become unemotional and unattached. They cease to find connections between themselves and others and actually loose the ability to remember faces. The second is is the ability to make decisions. They will spend hours studying menus in deciding where to eat – scouting out the table arrangement, staffing, and location. In the end they are incapable of choosing based on preference. This has led scientists to understand the role emotion plays in the decisions we make.

For the last few years I’ve been pretty hard on emotions. I generally feel that America is a hyper- emotional culture. We purchase based on a feeling, form relationships on a sensation, and eat until we can not walk because of a desire. From movies to Hollywood romance, emotional sensation is greatly accelerated as though hyped up on steroids. But these emotions are something we can not do without. Unlike the post-apocalyptic-dystopic thriller Equilibrium, set in a world in which all humans are required to take a medication in order to control all emotional impulses, as these were seen as the origin of war, emotions and rationality are both necessary. The complexities of the brain necessitate the balance of opposing factors in the mind.

The irony in our current situation is the extreme to which emotions are carried out and trusted 100%. We listen closely and react to “what we feel”, not asking why we feel. Balance is much more difficult to obtain. Look at food consumption in the US for example. The draw towards fast food is completely biological. We have a natural propensity to consume sugar, salt, and fat whenever possible due to the limitations of these items in naturally occurring systems. Our bodies crave these foods as traditionally humans did not know when they would get it next. Now that fat and sugar are available all the time and salt is on every table, how do we keep up with the changes? Our genes have not transitioned to our lifestyle and culture, leading some researchers to suggest that 1 out of every 3 children under 20 will develop diabetes in their lifetime. Heart disease is at an all time high, and cancer is a story in every household. Beyond physical biology, clothing, electronics, and other purchases are seen as satisfying to purchase. But as any one has learned, this is a momentary impulse. In face, the brain is chemically rewarded (essentially you obtain a natural high) much more for a purchase than for the owning of the product.

Is this why Buddhism is such a growing trend in American culture? The simplicity of serenity in the midst of chaos and the ability to control one’s self in an indulgent culture is irresistible. According to Progressive Policy Institute, Buddhism is the fastest growing religion among native born Americans. The irony in this situation is that the chief goal of Buddhism is the eradication of suffering. Though Americans do suffer, I think the draw towards Buddhism has more to do with “future shock”, or the inability to deal with the trappings of modern culture. The more advanced and technologically connected we become, the more susceptible it is to retreat internally. The more purchasing power we obtain the more we realize it does not satisfy basic human cravings for satisfaction. The most logical option is to find a place in which your mind can take a vacation.

Read More