Humans are clever creatures. We’ve come a long way in the past hundred years and consider ourselves the most intelligent beings around. And yet, we make irrational decisions to this day.
We would rather stay at a job where we’re unhappy than pursue something else. We don’t start working on a project for months until only a few days are left. We do things that will likely lead to regret down the road… so why do we do them?
We’re Not as in Control as We Think
We like to think that we are logical and rational about our decisions. If a problem comes up, we think through each step carefully and find a way to resolve it. That may be true some of the time, but more often than not, a lot of times we act first, then think later. As a result, we perform an action, and then find a way to logically make sense of what we did. Even if we genuinely want to do something, external circumstances or our emotions get the best of us, causing us to rationalize poor decisions. For instance, you might:
The Three Brain Networks
Humans have three separate components of the brain that act very differently from one another.
The oldest part is the “reptilian brain." It focuses on survival, such as nourishment, reproduction, and threat avoidance. While that’s all good, this part of our brain is averse to changes and can be stubborn to the suggestions of other parts of the brain.
The limbic brain emerged next, and it focuses on our emotional responses to situations. The limbic brain causes us to make snap judgments based on past experiences and memories. While these emotions and reactions can protect us, they can also be unfair judges.
Finally, the neocortex is the newest part of the brain. It focuses on complex skills such as rational thinking, creativity, and languages. We have the neocortex to thank largely for civilization’s advancements.
These three layers communicate with each other and influence our thoughts and decisions. Unfortunately, the older, powerful parts of our brain can work against what’s best for us.
How Your Brain Makes Decisions
As soon as a situation pops up, the three parts of our brain try to resolve the issue in different ways. For instance, let’s say you walk into a room and see a molten lava cake oozing with chocolate sauce. You start to salivate (just writing this makes me hungry). Your reptilian brain sees food, while your limbic brain imagines how delicious it would be to bite into the cake.
On the other hand, your rational neocortex sees the calorie-dense cake and says, “Hold on a second. I’m supposed to be watching my weight. And besides, I’m heading over to Jane’s place tonight, where there will be tons of food and dessert.”
Back before modern civilization was around, eating the cake (or whatever food was around) was a wise decision, since you never knew when the next meal would be. Today though, eating everything you see leads to weight and health problems.
So which part of our brain wins in the end? It depends on the scenario. Research from Princeton University concludes that impulsive choices happen when the emotional part of our brains triumphs over the logical one. “Our emotional brain has a hard time imagining the future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions,” says Laibson at Harvard University. “Our emotional brain wants to max out the credit card, order dessert and smoke a cigarette. Our logical brain knows we should save for retirement, go for a jog and quit smoking.”
When we see, touch, or smell something that we really want, the temptation is too great to resist. We act impulsively because the dopamine in our brains gets all fired up. When our brain has calmed down afterward, though, we end up regretting our actions.
So here are some methods that I’ve used to help my brain do what’s best for me in the long run.
1. Manage your environment
I’ve noticed that cravings happen most often when I see an object. My brain then thinks, “I want that!” Since I’ve placed healthier snacks and food nearby, I don’t need to expend energy trying to resist temptation. Managing your surroundings also works when you want to achieve an important goal.
2. Tend to basic needs
If possible, find ways to work with your reptilian and limbic brains, not against them. Even if the older parts of your brain don’t always work in your best interest, it doesn’t mean they’re evil. The best way to tend to their needs is to maintain your energy levels. Feeling tired? Take a nap or get more rest. Is your stomach grumbling? Eat balanced meals throughout the day. Cranky from stress? Go and play. When your energy levels aren’t being taken care of, your mood drops and your reasoning skills worsen.
3. Tie emotion to your goals
Our emotions can easily overpower any logic deduction skills we have. So if you really want to start creating a habit, then associate it with an emotion. For instance, if you forget to floss your teeth, put a sign up reminding yourself that cavities are painful. On the other hand, if you find it hard to work on a project, find ways to make it exciting.
4. Just do it
When we feel nervous or scared of doing something, we often try to talk ourselves into becoming more confident. While this method helps boost up our self-esteem, there comes a point when you just have to jump. After all, we’re naturally inclined to stay in the same situation.
Our decisions are often driven by factors outside of logic and reasoning. Distractions and emotions can lead us away from where we want to go. But if you can find ways to get parts of the brain to cooperate and behave according to your goals, then you’re well on your way to tipping the scales back in your favor.
Article adapted from: http://www.jumpstartyourdreamlife.com/how-our-brain-sabotages-our-ambitions-in-favor-of-chocolate-cake/
Heart of Hume
64 Hume Street Unit 201
Collingwood Ontario L9Y 1V4
Michele [at] AwareWithin [dot] ca