Neuroscience tips on decision-making.

Think of a time when you deliberated about going on a small trip or mini holiday. Isn’t it true to say that either way (whether you decided to go or not) you felt calmer after you made the decision. That’s not random. Neuroscience tells us that making the decision reduces worry and anxiety, which calms the emotional center of your brain, which is called the limbic system. Making decisions, and this includes creating intentions or setting yourself realistic goals are part of the same neural circuitry., called the prefrontal cortex. When the prefrontal cortex is engaged, you calm down.


Looked at another way, stopping the ‘ping pong’ in your brain and making the decision actually helps overcome striatum activity, which has a tendency to pull you towards negative impulses and routines. We all know that making a decision also changes your perception of the world, our brain likes us to find solutions to our problems.

Some decisions, we know are easier than others. Deciding on a holiday may be fairly easy. What about deciding on a project or whether a report or thesis needs more data, qualitative research or a better conclusion? These and other decisions that aren’t ‘yes/ no’ are much harder.

Again Neuroscience has a tip that’s helpful for these types of decisions. For those of us who are perfectionists this tip is tricky (and perhaps a stretch): work on the project until it’s just at the stage of ‘good enough. Don’t sweat trying to make it 100% by overanalyzing the situation, issue or project. Trying to be a perfectionist overwhelms your brain with a flood of emotions (called too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity) and this in turn makes you feel out of control. When you realistically tell yourself that the decision, at this point in time is ‘good enough’ your brain’s dorso-lateral prefrontal area is activated, which is what makes your feel more in control. Professor Barry Schwartz says ‘Good enough is almost always good enough’. A feeling of control reduces your levels of stress hormones. In addition, making a decision actually boosts pleasure hormones called dopamine. That’s good to know!

Here is a memorable experiment to illustrate this. Two rats were given injections of cocaine. Rat A had to pull a lever first and Rat B didn’t have to do anything. What was the difference in brain activity? Rat A had a bigger boost of dopamine.

So the lesson here is that when you make a decision on a goal and then achieve it, you feel better than when good things happen by chance. Hopefully you can’t relate to the cocaine example, so here is a gym example. If you feel that you have to go to gym (versus going voluntarily), your body feels stressed and you don’t get the same dopamine pleasure boost. 

Continuing with the exercise example. To sum this up: set a goal and make the decision to go to them gym on three specific days in the week. Stick to that decision and if you’re running short of time don’t use that as an excuse to back out. It really is good enough to go for 15-20 minutes. This is all so much better that the ‘ping pong’ of deliberating about going to gym each day.