Your brain makes a decision ten seconds before you realise it. Published in Nature Neuroscience, researchers looked at brain activity and were able to determine how someone would react before they were aware they were making a decision. Frank Tong, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, says “ten seconds is “a lifetime” in terms of brain activity. He isn’t wrong.
While you may think you have a grasp on consciousness, you don’t. The lead researcher of the experiment, German neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes, says: “We think our decisions are conscious, but these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg.”
On the face of it, this has disastrous effects for free will. You could argue that because our decisions are seemingly so pre-determined, we have no control over them. That isn’t strictly true.
Your Consciousness Isn’t Aware of Everything the Brain Does
National Institutes of Health neuroscientist Mark Hallett says the unease people feel at the potential non-existence of free will is because of the misconception of self as separate from the brain, according to Wired. He says:
“That’s the same notion as the mind being separate from the body — and I don’t think anyone really believes that.
A different way of thinking about it is that your consciousness is only aware of some of the things your brain is doing.”
Your free will likely isn’t a separate force you can tap into. It’s more likely something you have less control over. Your decisions are made up of every personal experience you have, your personality, and the daily desires you exhibit.
David DiSalvo, the author of What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, says that where you take in roughly 11 million pieces of data every second, you only consciously process about 40. You can’t expect to be in charge 24/7. T
o prove this, researchers at Brain and Mind Institute at the University of Western Ontario presented participants with two groups of circles, one on the left and another on the right. In one group, the circles were connected to tiny lines but weren’t connected to each other. In the other group, the circles were connected via the lines and to each other.
Even though the number of circles is precisely the same in both groups, people’s eyes see fewer circles in the connected group. However, when given a task to “act” on the targets, participants planned actions with all of the circles, despite not visually seeing them all.
Essentially, when forced to use their conscious mind, they saw more. Whereas before, the lines connecting the circles pushed them back into the periphery of their minds.
Lead researcher Jennifer Milne, a PhD student at the University of Western Ontario, puts it poignantly:
“It’s as though we have a semi-autonomous robot in our brain that plans and executes actions on our behalf with only the broadest of instructions from us.”
In real-world scenarios, these “instructions” are made through your unconscious. According to Business Insider, your decisions are rendered through factors you will have missed, such as these:
- Social validation. Business Insider uses the example of buying a TV. You may have done your research on prices, quality, and availability but you have unconsciously thought about what other people are buying, hence why you look at reviews incessantly.
- Commitment. When you’re looking to buy a high-end TV, you’re committing to your persona. For instance, I spent ages deliberating over headphones and purchased a pair of £250 Bose. I was committing to my persona, saying I’m the sort of person who likes music.
- Reciprocity. You’re asking yourself if you have any social obligations or debts you can pay off with this purchase — hosting a watching party to use your new TV, for instance.
So, even though you may have spent weeks deliberating over a big decision, chances are there have been numerous, perhaps unseen elements factoring in. Your brain is reprocessing some of the 11 million pieces of data that you’ve missed. Trusting your gut may not be such a bad thing, as your unconscious brain is doing so much more than you realise.
Your Brain Hates Making Decisions Most of the Time
Dan Ariely’s TED talk suggests that making consistent decisions for ourselves is too much effort. He sights the example of checking organ donors boxes when filling out driver's license forms. In the seven countries where opt-out (clicking the box not to become a donor) was the option, the lowest score was 86%, the highest 100%. In the countries where opt-in (clicking the box to become a donor) was the option, the lowest score was 4%, the highest being 28%.
More and more research is highlighting how your brain just does not like making conscious decisions, which is why it makes them for you. Moreover, a shocking study found that judges are more likely to offer parole and more lenient sentences in the morning or after a break. To make the most significant decisions, you need to have the optimal conditions. That involves numerous factors, such as the following.
Make decisions in the morning
Baba Shiv, a professor of marketing at Stanford University, suggests making the more challenging decisions in the morning because your serotonin levels are at their highest. Consequently, the feeling of risk is diminished compared to the afternoon. During the afternoon, you will put off decisions to the afternoon because of your preference toward indecision, according to Shiv.
Organisational psychologist Dr Amanda Imber suggests taking a break before a decision later on in the day, “because ‘decision fatigue’ is difficult to fix without giving the brain a proper rest.”
Eat before you make a decision
In the wild, animals make riskier decisions based on how hungry they are. I remember watching a nature documentary; a pack of wolves chased a huge buffalo for miles. While they vastly outnumbered it, they were still no match. One hit from the buffalo could’ve killed a wolf with relative ease. Still, the wolves chased and chased, desperate to feed.
We are not so different. When you are filled with a burning desire, whether it be hunger, sexual or thirst, you tend to make riskier decisions, according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. So if you want to be more level-headed, fill your belly. That way, you are not letting your physical desires spill over into your decision-making process.
Open a window
Research from Oxford Brookes University has shown that the higher the CO2 levels in a room, the sharper mental decline you’ll experience. People worked 60% faster with reduced CO2 concentrations, according to Work Mind. Open a window for proper ventilation to keep your brain sharp. You could put a plant in your workspace, as they improve the air quality.
As you’ve read all of the information I’ve outlined, your brain has been making decisions for you. Your view on decision making is likely influenced by factors you hadn’t even thought about. For instance, you may consider yourself a good decision-maker, so none of this is relevant. Or, you may be looking to improve, so you act on the points I’ve outlined, thus slipping into your conscious.
If there were one lesson I want you to take away from the article, it’s this: just because you aren’t involved in as many decisions as you thought, that doesn’t make you an irrational decision-maker. Your brain is continually collecting data and acting on your behalf. Trust it.