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.