Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Emotional Brain

I’m reading an excellent book which, in a few paragraphs, summarizes the neurological basis for credit card debt and the sub-prime mortgage debacle. In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer explains how our emotions tend to overvalue immediate gains at the expense of long-term advantages.

The problem is this: thinking about immediate rewards occurs in one part of the brain—the mid-brain limbic system—and thinking about longer-term rewards occurs in another part of the brain—the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system—rich in dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure—rewards us immediately for making a decision that feels good. When we make a rational decision—such as the decision to save $50 for retirement instead of spending it on yet another pair of shoes—there’s no such reward.

The mid-brain works hard to short-circuit many of the decisions we make with the rational prefrontal cortex. “All these cells want is a reward,” says Lehrer, “and they want it now.”

It’s only been in the past ten to twenty years that scientists have really begun to understand how the brain works. New imaging techniques allow them to actually watch a brain in action, as movement and colors on a monitor show the level of activity in different areas. This type of knowledge has immediate practical applications, and the sooner we can get it out to the general public, the better.

With knowledge of how our brain works, maybe we can learn to choose which part of it we use to make certain types of decisions. Maybe we can learn to quit duping and doping ourselves with short-term rewards and empty promises. Maybe we can learn to distinguish between emotional and rational decisions and—with an overall plan for a healthy, successful life—quit letting the emotional brain drive the train.

Clearly, both emotions and intellect are necessary for making good decisions. But most of us tend to get the balance wrong a good deal of the time. Understanding the advantages and limitations of the emotional brain might go along way toward helping us all make better choices.

In the days to come, I’m going to look for times when I’m tempted to do something my rational mind doesn’t approve. I’m going to try consciously shifting my thinking from my mid-brain to my forebrain. I’ll let you know how it goes.


Anonymous said...

I remember reading about psychologists who have studied 4-year-olds and their ability to delay gratification. They have tracked these children over the years. (I first read about the studies in the late 80's). The last I heard, they had discovered 1) children who can delay gratification function more successfully as adults and 2) one can develop one's ability to delay gratification.

I think some folks are just born with better developed forebrains. Then there are others, like my Aunt Addie, a delightful “Auntie Mame” character who enjoyed life in the mid-brain limbic system. She was about to embark on a 3rd or 4th marriage and said she was doing so in order to have someone who would talk to her. My prefrontal cortex mother advised her to get a parrot.

Good luck with your experiment.

Anonymous said...

Are you guys related to Emotional Brain Training News? I have been reading about emotional brain training over on their blog and wondered if you had worked together?

Citizen Jane said...

Hello, A!

I had never heard of EBT training before you very kindly sent that link. Very interesting--thanks!