Have you ever made a decision because it “felt” right? That is, you can’t explain the rationale or logic behind how and why you decided what you did, but deep in your “gut”, you “know” you made the “right” decision simply because it “felt” right.

It turns out that you are not alone. All of us have made such decisions because we are “wired” to decide things, using not just our rational and logical brain, but our emotional brain as well. Our most “logical,” and “rational” decisions are emotionally based.

All of this and more is explained in a book that I just finished reading entitled, How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2009). In it, Lehrer explains that we do, indeed, use emotions to make decisions.

How? Each of us have dopamine neurons. These are the molecular source of our feelings. (Id. at p. 47). It is the release of the dopamine that makes us feel good; it is “chemical bliss”, flooding the brain with a “feel – good chemical” (Id. at p. 61). To achieve this “chemical bliss” on a repeat basis, we will engage in the behavior that causes it, again and again. Similarly, to the extent that these neurotransmitters tell us to be wary, we will listen to them and avoid similar situations in the future: The dopamine neurons immediately stop firing and as a result we experience a negative emotion. (Id. at p. 47) which “teaches” us – not to do “that” again!

In short,

“Dopamine neurons automatically detect the subtle patterns that we would otherwise fail to notice; they assimilate all the data that we can’t consciously comprehend. And then, once they come up with a set of refined predictions about how the world works, they translate these predictions into emotions.” (Id. at p. 48).

Thus, they will get excited by predictable rewards and get even more excited by unpredictable rewards:

“The purpose of this dopamine surge is to make the brain pay attention to new, and potentially important, stimuli. Sometimes, this cellular surprise can trigger negative feelings such as fear. . . .

Most of the time, the brain will eventually get over its astonishment. It’ll figure out which events predict the reward, and the dopamine neurons will stop releasing so much of the neurotransmitter. . . .” (Id. at p. 60).

For example, as Lehrer explains, suppose you have to make a decision on whether to purchase a stock. You review all the financial data but cannot keep it all straight, much less process all of the information. But you have to make a decision – and so you do so – based on what “feels” right. In truth,

“. . . your emotions will ‘reveal a remarkable degree of sensitivity’ to the actual performance of all of the different securities. The investments that rose in value will be associated with the most positive emotions, while the shares that went down in value will trigger a vague sense of unease. These wise yet inexplicable feelings are an essential part of the decision-making process. Even when we think we know nothing, our brain know something. That’s what our feelings are trying to tell us.” (Id. at p. 48).

The author goes into a lot more detail than I am able to in this blog: it is quite fascinating and has taught me that even the most “rational”, and “logical” decision is emotionally based.

During a mediation, I sometimes implore the participants to “think with their heads, not with their hearts.” After reading this book, I will no longer do so as I know this is impossible: sometimes our best decisions are emotionally based!

. . .Just something to think about.


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