How Are Decisions Made?… Your Thoughts?
Have you ever taken a few minutes to think about how you actually make decisions or do you just “make” the decision and move on with your life? Not that you need to take time to think about this, but if you did, then you may end up perceiving the world in an entirely different perspective. No one really knows how decisions are made, but there are numerous studies on the nervous system and the brain and how they are key players in the decision making process. With that in mind, I’ll offer up my thoughts on how decisions are made. Before you agree or disagree with me, you should consider everything I’m about to discuss, and then make your decision. Or would that be me making the decision for you? Now, I really messed you up didn’t I? And got you more intrigued… Or maybe I lost you for good and you don’t really care.
Because no one really knows how decisions are truly made, that doesn’t exactly leave me a good starting place. Throughout my years of research, studying, and observations I think it is best to start with our Nervous System, including both the Central and Peripheral Nervous System. A quick filler to catch you up is necessary before diving into the depths of the discussion. The human framework consists of a musculoskeletal system that includes bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles and a vascular system of blood vessels so blood can travel to all areas of the body and of course the nervous system. Within the spinal cord is the Central Nervous System (CNS for short) and as it travels up into the head it becomes the brain stem and opens up into the limbic system and then the cerebral cortex. The spine has many small openings for the Peripheral Nervous System (PNS for short) that branch out like roots of a tree to all parts of the body. The PNS is otherwise known as the Sensory Nervous System, which is composed of our senses. This is the entirety of what I’m about to discuss on how decisions are made.
Humans have 5 major sensory systems for how we perceive the world – Vision (Sight), Auditory (Sound), Somatosensory (Touch), Olfactory (Smell), and Gustatory (Taste). These can be broken down into different categories. I am going to break them down into what I would deem the dominant senses and non-dominant. This does not mean one has more importance over the others; I am simply using the words dominant and non-dominant to discriminate between their frequencies of use in every day life. The first 3 I mentioned of Sight, Sound, and Touch will fall under the dominant category, and the other 2 of Smell and Taste will fall under the non-dominant category. You use your eyes, ears and sense of touch to learn and protect yourself from danger nearly every moment of each day. The chemical senses under the non-dominant category are clearly not used as frequently. Although, one could argue that you constantly smell different molecules in the air that help protect us from danger. However, I am going to leave it how it is, because as I said it is my way of categorizing them and I also have other reasons such as them being “chemical” in nature for why I categorized them the way I did. The 2 chemical senses have more input regarding what goes on inside the digestive and immune system, whereas the 3 non-chemical ones help us learn. Regardless of how you want to view them, they are all important and all have a role in memory, recalling of information, and learning capabilities.
With that in mind, let’s move to the actual point of this discussion – how are decisions made? Decisions aren’t actually “made” if you will. Decisions are “made” as a result of information received from a combination of our senses. So, decisions are more unconscious rather than conscious. Sorry to disappoint you about making that “big decision” to buy a house or to get married. Your body was primed for that decision through a series of sensory events.
Humans receive information from our surroundings and we must process it, which forces the body to “make” the decision of what happens next. It truly is a result of how you perceive your surrounding environment. Whenever I thought I was right as a kid my Dad used to hand me an imaginary world in his hands and would say, “Here’s your world, you can rule it however you want.” That used to make me so mad as a kid, but now that I’ve grown up, the reality is that he was kind of right. We all control our own world, we just happen to all share the same giant rock of minerals that we call Earth. You control your own destiny, not anyone else. However, enough of the tangent, let’s get back to the reception of information from our senses.
Whenever we see something for example, that information (light reflected from that object) gets processed by photoreceptor cells in our eyes, which then sends an electrical signal through the optic nerve and into the CNS of the brainstem to further process it. Once it is processed, the CNS sends the processed information back out to the PNS and ultimately “makes” the decision of whether we need to stay and witness the object (or event) or if it could cause danger (or fear) and force our muscles to contract, creating movement for us to escape the danger and increase our chances of survival. What if that decision-making system was flawed? What if the information you received was processed and told you to stay and witness a wild animal attacking you (no fear) rather than creating a sense of fear and telling you to run away? So, did you really “make” that decision, or was it simply a cascade of information processing that “made” the decision for you?
The same principle goes for the other senses as well. Without going into detail to reiterate what I just stated, I’ll provide similar examples where the only difference is the sensory system. Rather than vision, let’s go to the sense of sound. Why is it you like certain sounds or noises and dislike others? Why do some sounds create joy and happiness when others create fear and panic or even disgust or sadness? The same thing happens where we hear a sound at a certain frequency. The information hits cell receptors in the inner ear, it gets processed, sent to the brain and CNS, and then gets sent back out to the rest of the body resulting in an emotional and/or behavioral response. The decision was “made” for us, we are simply responding to the information that our brain and nervous system automatically processed. Again, when we “respond” to an object (whether it touched us or we touched it), the information from our cell receptors in our skin must be processed so a decision can be made on how to proceed with the current situation. Of course, the same information processing has to occur for different tastes and different aromas. All 5 of the senses humans have processed information and spit it out so the body can respond accordingly. The reality is that you don’t have much control when it comes to decision-making. However, the one part you do have control over is the type of environment that surrounds you, which leads me into how memory, information recall, and learning work.
So how do memory, information recall, and learning come into play here? Great question! I am sure you have heard the phrase, “There’s always a first for everything.” There is a lot of truth in this statement. The first time we are exposed to something our senses have no idea how to process the information. This will lead to a response that could be harmful, causing pain, or a response that could be beneficial, causing happiness. Having pain receptors is a critical component to survival. If one could not sense pain, he/she would not survive very long. Pain is part of learning as is failure. One could even put pain and failure in the same category, however this does not mean they are same thing by any means. Not all pain signifies failure, and not all failure signifies pain. Nevertheless, both are a part of the learning process for humans.
After the first exposure, our brains and the cells of our body have memory. The brain stores the information received from the exposure for later use. Every time we see an object/event, hear a sound, touch an object, taste food, or smell an aroma, our brain stores this information once it has been processed and categorized into good, neutral, or bad. The next time we need to process similar information regardless of which sense or senses we used, the memory is in store and we must recall that information so that we “make” a better decision. This could be worded as having a “better response” rather than “make a better decision.” Our systems become more efficient at processing similar information and therefore more efficient at responding so that we can survive another day. Remember, the ultimate goal is survival. This naturally leads to how humans learn.
We learn by storing processed information from our senses and then being able to recall that information to respond to the current situation. For example, if a past experience caused pain (say, you touched something hot), then next time you were in a similar situation and around something hot, you probably wouldn’t touch the object, thereby protecting you from that danger. Likewise, if a past experience created the emotion of happiness, you are very likely to repeat that particular experience. This is the part that we can ultimately control when it comes to decision-making. The more positive experiences we have throughout our life, the more likely we are to repeat those experiences and to ultimately stay away from negative ones. However, one must learn from negative experiences to know not to put him/herself in that type of environment in the future. The bottom line here is that we CAN control our surrounding environments, but CANNOT control the information processing of those environments. This is why they say wisdom comes with age! My piece of advice: listen to your elders, because they have “been there, done that.” However, I am a believer in that humans should learn the hard way. By taking advice from those who have “been there, done that” doesn’t always award your own brain the memory of the particular experience to draw on later in life. This is also why the phrase, “one man’s treasure is another man’s trash” exists. By taking someone’s word for something, you are forced into making assumptions that may not lead to something beneficial for you as a human. If you didn’t experience the event or object yourself, then how could your brain and CNS possibly know how to respond to that event? It can’t! That person may have had a bad experience with the event whereas you may experience something great and profound. However, this is not to say that you cannot learn from your elders who have “been there, done that.” For example, if you have been in a similar situation and you have a current situation at your hand and your brain doesn’t know how to handle it completely, you could learn from the elder who has been in your current situation. They could spare you pain and failure. Or you may choose not to listen to them and try the event anyway because you may feel and think that you can accomplish what they couldn’t. Maybe you are stronger, bigger, faster, or taller and those characteristics would help you accomplish the feat they couldn’t. Again, everything depends on your own perception of this Earth and your willingness to succeed and survive. I’ll leave you with this, “Great success ONLY comes with great risk.” Meaning, if you want to truly be successful in life, you must take big risks, otherwise you will be another person in the pack. And if you ask me, I’m not trying to follow the pack, I’m trying to lead and be great and make a difference in this world. I want to pass away knowing I had no regrets in life and knowing that I tried and learned everything I possibly could. You only have one life and it’s pretty damn short in the grand scheme of things, so why hold anything back? The Isley Brothers once said, “It’s yo’ thing, do what you wanna do.” So as long as you think twice before doing anything, I say, “F*** that. Do your thing, go for it!”
That’s just my perception of the world and how I think decisions are made. What are your thoughts?