Decision Time

BrainDiagramMany decisions come to us in a way that invites, and sometimes requires, immediate action or response. We have complicated machinery working behind the scenes that in those precious seconds will chemically and electrically influence what we do in profound ways.

I wrote recently about the role some chemicals play in our lives. The relative presence or absence of those at any given moment certainly impacts how we act as we’re stimulated. That perturbation of our system then triggers the release of still more associated chemicals, which ride around with us for a while, continuing to impact how we interpret the world.

The electrical system also has a profound influence. Because of the way our brain is physically laid out and wired there is a timing impacting how we register stimuli. Much information about the anatomy of the brain is available online, but for quick reference you can think of the Thalamus as an information hub that routes things where they need to go. The hippocampus is complicated, but in layman’s terms it plays a vital role in processing memories, inhibition, and the way we understand space (as in our spatial awareness). The amygdala also processes memories, but is more focused on emotionally oriented things. Finally the cortex, which is comprised of many subparts, is responsible for our thinking. It plays a key role in consciousness, perception, awareness, language, thought, attention, and memory.

Note how the emotional centers of the Amygdala and Hippocampus are closely tied to the Thalamus. Electrically these areas are able to receive and process information fractions of a second before the more rational parts of our brain get a shot at it. When an input triggers a memory our emotional center is first on the scene, and is able fire back electrical impulses that pull other emotionally relevant memories before we’ve had a chance to “think” about it. And then the chemicals are released to put the rest of our physiology in a complimentary state, which among other things affects the way we process further information and categorize it into memories, which are then retrieved, and so on.

We don’t stand a chance.

There are some biologically sound reasons for it to work this way, but it does trip us up on a regular basis. One can employ techniques to mitigate the tendency to react emotionally to things, but they all require time. The emotional centers have an inherent advantage. If you can pause to begin thinking about it, or distract yourself away from it, you better open the circumstance up for more rational processing. You can write things down, which also engages the more rationally cognizant portions of your brain. You can make a flow chart, or log some if/then statements, etc. You can force yourself to remember something you did well, or achieved, or (ideally) something you did that helped someone. Your chemicals will reinforce your efforts here.

It all starts with the recognition that your emotions are out in front of your thinking, which means even your thinking becomes based on an emotional context…until you change the context with other thinking and emotions.

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