Three Brains, Two Choices: Some Thoughts on Decision Making

Kaenae Peninsula

One moment. A fraction of a second. That’s all it takes to make a decision when all three brains are in agreement. You’ve experienced it yourself, many times. You’re about to walk across the street and see a car coming and you stop. You slam on the breaks of your car to prevent yourself from hitting the car in front of you. You see the child about to touch a hot stove. You act. Immediately. A decision is made. Sometimes, however, decisions don’t happen quickly. They take some time. There may be competing interests, lack of information, conflicting emotions about what course of action to take. And sometimes, decisions though not rapid, are made with relative ease and without much obstruction or confusion. And, of course, there is indecision, which invariably ends as there is tremendous energy, and intelligence, behind decision making. So, indecision doesn’t last too long even if it is some external situation or circumstance which prompts the decision to be made.

All decisions can be broken down to one of two choices. Even the most complicated decisions one makes are predicated on the first of two choices: yes or no — do it or don’t do it, proceed or don’t proceed, green light or red light. Depending on which choice is made, sequential decisions and actions are built. For example, the decision to eat dinner is first a yes or a no and from there, assuming it is a yes, decisions about time of dinner, place of dinner, content of dinner, etc, etc…can take place. If the decision is no, then a whole different sequence of decisions and actions emerge. In some respect, we are constantly making decisions throughout the day.

Decision making involves all three of our brains. To say we have three brains is somewhat misleading…but, it is also somewhat accurate. Certainly the brain operates as a whole unit. It is an incredibly complex system of neuro-chemical, bio-electrical program structures. However, there are three recognized general areas and functions of the brain. What is often referred to as the reptilian brain or the animal brain is here referred to as the Biological Brain. It is the core of the brain and the brain stem. Here is found the seat of our most basic physical functions and drives. It is this part of the brain that is considered to be “hard wired.” That is, the program structures which regulate behaviors arising out of this part of the brain are pretty well fixed; breathing, digestion, circulation and survival instincts would fall into this category. On top of and surrounding the Biological Brain is the Emotional Brain. Here we find, of course, the seat of our emotions. These program structures are less fixed and more “plastic” meaning that adaptation to relatively current situations is not only possible but feasible and often necessary. But, this part of the brain does generally not adapt rapidly. Months and sometimes years are required to notice changes in our emotional life. Experiences of depression, social anxiety, traumatic stress and irrational fears would fall into this category. The outermost brain, and the newest in terms of evolutionary development, is the Social Brain. Often referred to as the neocortex, this is the most “plastic” area of the brain, the most capable of learning and adapting and changing. This part of the brain can, and often does, change in the blink of an eye. This part of the brain is the seat of reason, logic, language, sequential thinking and planning. It is capable of mathematical formulations, symbolism and abstract art. And, here too we find two highly developed hemispheres with their respective functions. The left and right hemispheres of the brain have distinctive functions and are inctricately connected and coordinated by a part of the brain called the Corpus Callosum.

The Social Brain can become easily swayed by the Emotional Brain and often decisions which one knows are not reasonable or logical, are made anyway. The energy, the intensity and power of the Emotional Brain, overrides that of the Social Brain. The Biological Brain too can become colored by the Emotional Brain. The basic drive to eat food for nourishment can be, and often is, directed towards “junk” for purely emotional reasons. It doesn’t take a lot to see that most of the decisions in the world today, individually and collectively, are made predominantly from or colored by the Emotional Brain.

All three brains are highly active and intimately involved in decision making. Just about every decision involves, to some degree or another, basic, emotional and social…intelligence. For certainly we consider the brain the seat of intelligence, at whatever level it might be operating. The next time you make a decision, consider it in terms of your basic biological needs, your individual and psychological emotional needs and, your social needs. And, just as you will make one of two choices, to do this or not, so keep an eye open for those two choices you make throughout each and every day.

The Positive Intention of Negative Behavior

leaning tree

All behavior has behind it some intention and some purpose. Behavior is creative and strives to meet a need or fulfill a want. However, the behavior may appear to be irrational and dysfunctional from a “normal” perspective. For example, it’s certainly not logical for self sabotage to be in some way helpful or useful, but it often is. Self sabotage can protect a person from facing success which can be terribly frightening. I’ve worked with several college students who suffered with text anxiety. They knew the information cold but when it came time to take the test, they would freeze up, do poorly and get a C or worse on the test. In just about every case, after some discussion, it became clear that if they were to get an A on the test they would feel the pressure to keep it up and by only getting C’s, that pressure was eliminated. They sabotaged their success to avoid stress and pressure. There is a positive intention in that – it is somewhat protective. Now, the problem was no longer text anxiety but rather the pressure and stress of maintaining success, which was addressed.

Another common example is a child who misbehaves in the home. In many cases the misbehavior is tied to parental conflict. When the parents are fighting or in some form of conflict, the child misbehaves in an attempt to draw the attention away from their conflict and to the child. And, it often works. If parents are squabbling about something, when the child misbehaves, the squabbling stops and they have to focus on the child’s behavior. There is a very positive intention in that misbehavior! Even if parents are not in conflict, a child’s behavior is often a means of getting attention. In a child’s mind, negative attention is often better than no attention at all. For a child, gaining parental attention is a positive intention. Or, take a situation in which an adolescent is involved in gang activity. The gang offers a sense of belonging which the adolescent may not get at home. The motivation to belong has behind it a very positive intention.

Emotional states such as depression and anxiety can also have at their basis a positive intention. Depression can keep a person from facing difficult challenges in their life. Although this is avoidance, it is also protective. A person with fragile self confidence may feel threatened by the possibility of failure and rather than acknowledge that and work to improve their confidence, they simply create a situation wherein they are not able to meet that challenge – they become depressed. The depression is protecting their sense of confidence. Granted, this is somewhat irrational. But, the mind is a funny place and can “make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” The same is true for anxiety or panic attacks. The positive intention behind these emotional/behavioral experiences can in some way be highly protective. Obsessiveness too can be protective in that it occupies the mind with recurring thoughts about something irrational while something else more important, more pressing, but which may also be painful or difficult to deal with, is pushed aside. Protection is a very powerful motivator and although we may protect ourselves in odd ways, the underlying intention is still protection, which is positive.

Even some horrific behaviors such as rape or murder can be viewed as having a positive intention behind them, although there is no argument that the behavior itself is unacceptable. These behaviors are almost always an expression of power and control. Rape is not about sex and murder most often does not have as its goal the ending of the other person’s life. The goal in these cases, more often than not, is to experience a sense of power and control and that, in itself, is a positive intention because we all need to feel, to some degree, a sense of power and control over our life. People who strive to experience power and control through these types of behaviors are clearly maladjusted. But, it’s hard to argue against the positive intention of seeking a sense of power and control. The question is how can we best satisfy that intention, without harming others? Wars are fought to try and ensure security. Who would say that seeking security is not a positive goal? Destroying “enemies” is about seeking safety. Who would say that safety is not a positive objective? Suicide is an escape from intolerable pain. Or, in some cases to escape dishonor. Those are not negative intentions. That course of action is so often not a wise choice; yet, the underlying motivation is positive.

Despite the fact that so much of our negative behaviors arise from underlying motivations which are reasonable and, in some cases, even noble, we too often focus on the behavior. We criticize and condemn behaviors without considering the needs from which those behaviors arise. This is not to suggest that we should condone such behaviors. But, we could, and should, place much more emphasis on correction than on punishment. For, one of the hallmark qualities of being human is our capacity to be corrected, to adjust, to change….given the proper education and support. We can learn better ways to satisfy the intentions which give rise to our behaviors.

The Pros and Cons of an Open Mind




An open mind is good thing – most of the time. New ideas, new experience, increased knowledge, personal and professional growth, better relationships and an overall positive approach to life are just a few of the benefits of having an open mind. However, there are some pitfalls. Like an open window or an open door in which bugs can enter the home, an open mind is susceptible to litter, junk, lies and deceptions, false information and misdirection. The open mind, like an open window, needs a screen to keep the bugs out. The mental screen is called “discrimination.” It is an attribute everyone has. Discrimination is the capacity to see differences. Like any tool, discrimination can be used wisely or foolishly, for good or for bad. Unless we want our open mind filled with all kinds of non-sense, we must learn to differentiate between what is of genuine value and what is junk. You might say that our discriminative capacity is like an email spam filter. We can set the parameters to filter out the junk and let in the useful information. Generally, what is important to us is considered useful and gets through. What is important to you? An open mind, with a screen to prevent the bugs from entering, or a spam filter to block the junk, is a wonderful thing.

The open mind is also susceptible to a lack of conviction. Too many conflicting ideas can enter an open mind and cause indecision. It is necessary now and then to close the mind, disallow any more input, make a decision and act. Perhaps more important than having an open mind is having a mind that is capable of being open – or closed. We need a mind with hinges – well lubricated and in good working order. The hinges of our mind is our ability to decide. We can decide to accept or reject information. We can decide to consider a point of view or not. We can decide to open or close the window. A home would become cold and drafty if the doors and windows could not be closed now and then. But, it would be awfully stuffy if they could not be opened. We simply decide to open or close the window – or the mind. But, our decision must be made from intelligence and reason, not emotional reactions. An emotionally reactive person would likely open the doors and windows during a blizzard – or close the mind to beneficial information.It’s the mind that remains closed that prevents creative growth.

It’s the closed mind that stated in the late 1870’s that the telephone had too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a communication device or in the early 1970’s that no one would ever want a computer in their home. Charles Duell, the Commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents in 1899 said “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” In 1981, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, said “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” Even the most visionary person may close their mind to possibilities. Perhaps there is a bit more effort in keeping the mind open, just as smiling requires a little more muscle movement. But, the results of a smile are so often rewarding – and the fruits of an open mind can be very enriching. Despite the predictions of “experts” quoted above, it appears the mind will strive to be open and will move forward into new experiences hitherto thought unavailable or unreachable.
Ultimately, the cons of an open mind can be dealt with and the pros of an open mind are too important to neglect. As Charles Kettering, the American engineer and inventor said, “Where there is an open mind, there will be a frontier.” Living as we do on the verge of global catastrophes, we need a frontier. We need a vision of a better future, and a path towards that future. For that, we will need an open mind.

The Other Side of Happiness

coastal scene

As a mental health counselor, I’ve often worked with depressed individuals. Regardless of whether the individual is a child, adolescent or adult, I often play a little word game with them to help me get a better understanding of their depression. The word game goes something like this… “I’m going to ask you a few very simple questions and then I’m going to ask you a difficult question. OK?” The person often responds in the affirmative. “OK, what is the opposite of hot?” They rather quickly respond “cold.” “And what is the opposite of ‘up’?” to which they respond “down.” And then I ask, “What is the opposite of depression?” to which their eyes go up left, down right, up right, down left…They are thinking and they do not easily come up with an answer. After a short while, well over ninety percent say “happiness.” I’ve asked the same kind of question for other emotions. What is the opposite of anger? What is the opposite of sadness? What is the opposite of frustration? What is the opposite of confused? What is the opposite of anxious? What is the opposite of miserable? What is the opposite of scared? And guess what the answer is? Happiness. Happiness is the opposite of just about any negative emotion.

Our mind seems to be built in such a way that much of our meanings in life are made by contrasts and comparisons. We understand things as they relate (or don’t’ relate) to other things. Opposites are the ultimate contrast. Hot water has meaning in relation to cold water. Daylight is defined in relation to night time. Man gains definition in relation to woman, children to adults, students to teachers….And, more importantly, these opposites are not isolated from one another, they are connected just like the heads and tails of a coin. Our positive and negative emotions are like two sides of a coin. If a person is feeling depressed, they are capable of feeling the opposite of that, whatever that feeling is for that person, because depression is connected to that feeling. Granted, that connection is way over on the other side. But, nevertheless, it is connected.

The problem is that so many of us have an impoverished emotional vocabulary we are not able to label the opposite of our negative emotion correctly. For example, let’s say you are complaining of boredom. You are asked what, for you, is the opposite of boredom and you say happiness. But, it’s far more likely that excitement is the opposite of boredom but you simply do not have the awareness of a proper vocabulary to verbalize that feeling. It’s as if we have all been hypnotized to believe that happiness is the answer to all of our woes; happiness is the one panacea for all of our mental problems. But, there is a much greater wealth of positive emotions and it’s a shame to be limited to something as conventional as happiness – whatever that might mean to you.

In an effort to help the reader develop a more thorough vocabulary of emotional states, the following is a partial list of words that represent positive emotions. Affectionate, alert, amazed, amused, aroused, blissful, calm, carefree, cheerful, comfortable, confident, contented, curious, delighted, eager, ecstatic, elated, enchanted, energetic, enthusiastic, excited, fascinated, glad, glorious, grateful, inquisitive, inspired, intrigued, jubilant, mellow, mirthful, optimistic, perky, pleased, proud, radiant, refreshed, relaxed, satisfied, secure, serene, splendid, stimulated, thankful, thrilled, tranquil, trusting, upbeat and wonderful.

There’s an equally rich list of negative emotions as well. Afraid, agitated, aloof, angry, anguished, annoyed, anxious, apathetic, ashamed, bitter, dejected, depressed, despondent, discouraged, disgusted, distressed, disturbed, dull, embarrassed, exhausted, fearful, frightened, frustrated, furious, gloomy, guilty, helpless, horrified, hostile, impatient, indifferent, irritated, jealous, lazy, lethargic, lonely, mad, miserable, morose, mournful nervous, perplexed, pessimistic, reluctant, sad, scared, terrified, woeful and worried.

Now, if you were to be asked “what is the opposite of embarrassed?” you might be able to respond with something a little more thoughtful than merely “happiness.”

The Self Correcting Family

family at sunset

Parents often bring their child (or children) to a counselor or therapist to help “fix” behavioral problems exhibited by the child. These behaviors could be some form of conduct or adjustment disorder, general disobedience, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, relationship issues or any number of psychosomatic complaints. Although this is likely a good step to take, parents need to realize that a child’s misbehavior is more often than not a symptom of a family dysfunction. That is, problematic behavior on the part of a child, or adolescent, can be viewed as a message that the whole family system is in need of examination. The child is just the one acting out to bring attention to the fact that there is a “systems problem.” Parents take their child to a counselor/therapist and say “fix my child.” A much better approach would be for the family to go to a counselor and say “fix us.”

A family is a system. A system is a collection of parts that act together. Systems tend to be self regulating. There is a mechanism which ensures a system will operate within a certain limits. The technical term for this mechanism is “homeostasis.” It’s much like a thermostat set to a specific temperature. If the temperature is set to 70 degrees and it starts to get too cold, the heater kicks on to raise the temperature. If it starts to get too hot, the cooler kicks in to bring the temperature down. In human terms it works like this: let’s say a student is accustomed to getting C’s on their report card. Their personal thermostat is set for average. If the student should start to get above average A’s or B’s the thermostat kicks in and causes the grades to go back down to average C’s. Likewise, if the student starts to get below average D’s and F’s, the thermostat kicks in and efforts are put forth which raises the grade to the status quo of C. The family system also has a homeostatic function and every member of the family works to maintain that status quo. It is for this reason that behavior change in any one family member is difficult because the family system as a whole will tend to resist the change in that one member because the change in that one member can disrupt the established family system which strives to maintain its status quo through homeostasis.

As an example, consider a traditional nuclear family with two teenagers in which one is depressed and antisocial and the other is outgoing and friendly. The father is a busy professional and the mother is a busy homemaker with a part time job. The depressed teenager is labeled as having a problem. But, in some way, the family system is not only generating that behavior but is also supporting it. What does the family system, as a whole, gain from this behavior? That is the question a family therapist would explore, as opposed to focusing entirely on the depressed teenager. Because the family system is maintaining a depressed member as one of its components, the family system itself needs to change, not the single component. Attempts to change a single component within a family system without adjusting the thermostat within the family system as a whole often results in failed attempts to change the component. A family member can exhibit improvements in therapy and outside the home, but once that family member returns home, the homeostatic functions within the family system exert tremendous pressure to get back to the status quo.

It is said that a system is more than the sum of its parts. It is also said that when two people communicate there is actually six people; there is each person, how each person views the other person and how each person views themselves. In a family of four, there are many more than 4 present. Family systems communication can be very complex. Behavior problems within a family system are really not problems at all but rather signals from the system itself that the system itself needs to make some changes. The family system is not only self regulating but also self correcting. Rather than looking at any one person in the family as having a problem, look at that person as a voice of the system asking for help.