Monday, November 25, 2013

The Grand Mystery of How Your Brain Makes a Really Simple Choice


Most likely, you take decision making somewhat for granted. Maybe not big, life-changing decision making, the sort where you make columns of pros and cons and sit down with friends and family for deep meaningful conversations, but decisions like, Do I want to listen to a tape of some band or do I want to listen to NPR on this drive to the grocery store, or, Wait, do I need to go to the grocery store at all or maybe just Rite Aid, or maybe Walgreens is a little closer. It might be easier to just take the highway to Walmart but fuck Walmart. You probably don’t spend 20 percent of your day stumped over little things that don’t actually matter in the grand scheme—you just do them.

Making decisions—choosing—is one of the most crucial tasks your brain is responsible for, and certainly one of its most easily taken for granted. Inability to make decisions or having an extremely difficult time making them is a symptom of some mental illnesses—depression and schizophrenia, especially—that doesn’t get due credit for its debilitating effects. You need to be able to choose. Otherwise, life is a neverending series of roadblocks always compounding and always feeding back into the initial illness. Limbo is the inability to choose, and it traces back to a small and ill-understood part of the brain called the lateral habenula, the decision-making role of which is described in a paper out yesterday in Nature Neuroscience.

The University of British Columbia's Stan Floresco, the lead author of the paper, explained your brain's decision-making process in an interview on Sunday. "Although we still have a lot to figure out about the neural circuits underlying different types of decision making," he said, "one way you can look at it is that there are numerous brain regions, many of them in the frontal lobes, that use different types of information—your memories, your individual personality and preference, your current motivations etc—to help make value judgments about different courses of action.

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