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 Bread of Breath

a loaf of bread

Bread has long symbolized sustenance and nourishment. The idea of ‘breaking bread together’ is about collective sustenance, and nourishment for, indeed, we are intimately connected to the collective, and it to us. And yet, as an old goat once bleated, ‘we can live without food for weeks maybe months, without water for days maybe weeks, but we cannot live without breath for more than a few seconds to minutes. Breath is the bread of life, and the bread of breath is that mysterious animating energy, beyond conception, itself invisible, untouchable, unknowable, and, yet, without which we cease to exist.

Beyond Basic Needs

blue jade flower

We often think of our needs as being solely the basic survival needs of air, water, food, clothing and shelter. However, there are a series of needs which emerge when these basic physical needs are met. These higher needs are psychological and if not satisfied can result in depression, anger, anxieties, confusion, isolation and even violence. Before these psychological needs can be satisfied, they must be known. If we know we need food, we can get the food. But, if we don’t know what we need to eliminate the hunger, or the depression, we cannot satisfy that need. So, what are our psychological needs?

The most basic of psychological needs, and it overlaps with physical needs, is the need for Security. We seek not only physical security through our shelters but also through the establishment and enforcement of boundaries. The concept of boundaries also applies to us psychologically as we have an individual self which requires security. Our security and safety needs are satisfied through a variety of protective measures and much of our behavior is geared towards providing us with some semblance of psychological protection. For example, the child who consistently refuses to go to school may be, in their mind, trying to protect themselves from something. That something may be to avoid being bullied at school or perhaps this child’s single mother is ailing and the child wants to stay home to take care of her as she is the main source of protection and by assuring her well being, the child assures their own protection. As adults we also engage in behaviors which serve as psychologically protective mechanisms and there is certainly nothing wrong with this…unless the behavior is actually causing the reverse effect, which can often occur when childhood protective behaviors continue on into adulthood.

When our psychological needs for security are relatively satisfied, yet another set of psychological needs become dominant. These needs are about Connection. We strive to be connected to others, related to others…to have friends, to give and receive affection and caring. We need to belong, to love and to be loved. To meet these needs, communication, negotiation, dialogue, discussion and conflict resolution skills are very important. Just as a child needs to activate motor skills to walk to the kitchen to get some food when hungry, so too must we engage communication skills to meet our needs for connection with others.

When our needs for connection are satisfied, even in part, the needs for Value arise. Some of our greatest joy comes from being valued by others for who we are and what we do. Yet, even more important than being valued by others is our own sense of our own value…self value, self esteem. To the degree we estimate our self as valuable; to that extent we are healthy and productive. The golden rule, “do unto others as they do unto you” may in fact not be an injunction but rather a statement of fact. For, indeed, we do treat others as we treat ourselves and the more we value ourselves the more we value others and the world around us. It is not difficult to see how a person who met their needs up to this point and is not aware of this need for Value may begin to find a general malaise in their life, a gnawing hunger or thirst that nothing seems to quench. But, once they understand that this need to value…to value the self, as it is, to value others as they are, to value the world, and, in turn, to be valued, has been neglected, steps can be taken to address that lack.

The need to actualize one’s inherent potential arises when the previous needs are largely met. However, these needs are somewhat systemic and do not simply arise one after the other in a linear fashion. They overlap and can ebb and flow. A middle aged business person in the prime of their life, with a comfortable home, numerous friends, meaningful and productive work can become only focused on the basic needs of water, food and clothing in the aftermath of a natural disaster. The higher needs of connection and value vanish as the needs for security and survival take precedence. However, when this business person, or anyone who has found their needs for connection and value satisfied, begins to feel the stirrings of a deeper and more profound need, it is the need to actualize the potentialities inherent within the individual mind. Often referred to as Self Actualization, this need is rarely recognized let alone activated as the previously mentioned needs are almost universally not satisfied to the level required to allow the emergence of the need for Self Actualization to any significant degree. In fact, it is estimated that most people continue to seek satisfaction of their connection needs throughout their adult life. Perhaps because our communication skills are so poor, our ability to connect with others leaves much to be desired. Fighting, abuse and violence of all sorts may be the last attempt of an unskilled mind in trying to make connections with others.

Did You Choose To Be Here?

sunset at keawakapu beach

I have often heard from some, as you may have too, that you chose to be here, on this planet, at this time, in the circumstances you find yourself. And why did you choose to be here? To learn lessons. Do you believe that? If so, I am going to suggest that you are misinformed. You did not choose to be here, you are here by the inescapable results of consequences. Granted, you may be learning lessons here, but that is not what brought you into this world. What brought you into this world is the inexorable unfolding of consequences. Just as a person may find themselves in prison as a consequential result of their actions, not their choice, so too we find ourselves in this world. We did not choose to be in this world. We are here as a consequential result of actions and deeds from the past. And, just as a person who finds themselves in prison can choose to use that experience to learn and grow, so too we have choices we can make in this world by which we can learn and grow. But, the fact that we have choices now does not mean we chose to be here. Some would say, and rightly so, that regardless of our conditions, be they pleasant or bitter, by being here, and having choice, we are empowered, for it is our capacity to make choices, and enact those choices, that builds consequences.

Consequences are the natural results of actions. The sequence of events which has lead to our present circumstances can go back very far, even long, long before our birth into this material world for, indeed, we are far more than the transient body we inhabit or our temporary personality. We are an active energy system that animates the mind and body we inhabit. That energy system, like all energy, is, according to the first law of thermodynamics, neither created nor destroyed. It only changes form. Energy, as the poet William Blake stated, is ‘eternal delight.’ The third law of motion, postulated by Isaac Newton, states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, or, in other words, an effect, a consequence. Long before Newton, the law of cause and effect was understood as an underlying force responsible for bringing about the conditions of our experience. You cannot throw a rock into a pond and not have ripples rebounding from the farther shore, returning to its source. Every action has reverberations, consequences. To say that we choose to be in this world in the circumstances we find ourselves is to disregard this fundamental law of cause and effect.

Many people are relatively familiar with the concept cause and effect, or consequence, also known as ‘karma,’ which is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘action’ or ‘deed.’ What is less well known is the Sanskrit word ‘phala,’ which means ‘fruit’ as in the result of action. There are no actions or deeds, no karma, without phala, the fruits of those actions or deeds, which eventually ripen – and fall upon us. Yet, despite the commonly understood, and accepted, doctrine, or law, of cause and effect, many well intentioned, though misinformed people, continue to expound that we chose to be in this world with the circumstances which permeate our lives. There are problems with this line of thinking beyond the mere disregard for the law of cause and effect. For example, if a person suffering with a terminal disease is told they chose that, the presumption is that they can choose to not have that. And when the disease continues, or worsens, the person can feel guilty or ashamed for not choosing health. If a person is born into this world with significant deficits, either physical, emotional or social, or any combination of those three, they may be told that they chose this because they have lessons to learn. When these deficits continue, they can become guilt ridden and ashamed of themselves for not choosing to get better, or not learning their lessons. To say that those interned in concentration camps chose that is to seriously question the mental health of such people. A person would have to be crazy to choose to be placed in a concentration camp, or in a refugee camp starving to death, regardless of what lessons might be learned. It is far more sane to suggest that current conditions, no matter how beautiful or ugly, pleasant or painful, are the ripened fruit of past deeds, past actions. It is accurate to state that we do have choices in the present; we can make choices about the consequential conditions we find ourselves in. One of the principle tenets of Victor Frankl’s Logotherapy is that people have the freedom to make choices in which they can find meaning in any circumstance, including the most wretched. People can choose what to think and how to act, and interact, in any given situation.

It is far more compassionate, and accurate, to recognize that although we do have choices in this world, the conditions we find ourselves in, no matter how satisfying or frustrating, are not of our choosing but rather brought on by the law of consequences. We did not choose to be here in this world; we did not choose to be in the circumstances we find ourselves. We are here as a result of consequences. We are the ones ourselves, as a system of active animating energy, that brought on the consequential conditions we find ourselves in, both individually and collectively. And, so often our actions have been, and still are, unfortunately, short sighted, selfish, and even malevolent. Despite that, we do have choices now as to how we interpret and respond to our circumstances, how we behave and communicate, how we live, and love, which then does contribute to future consequences. The active animating energy that has brought on these consequential conditions, and which underlies our current mind and body, is channeled into action through a mind that is often still heavily conditioned with erroneous beliefs, skewed values, emotional debris and intellectual blockages. Short sightedness, selfishness and malevolence are still quite prevalent in this world. But, we can choose alternatives. That requires a consciousness at least willing to accept the idea of a law of cause and effect, and a consciousness that can delay gratification, for consequences may not, and often do not, arrive immediately. It is not a matter of figuring out what to do, the multi-dimensional cosmic mechanics of cause and effect are unfathomably complex. It is sufficient to act….from the heart.

Words of Wisdom

Words of Wisdom

Let go of what has passed.
Let go of what may come.
Let go of what is happening now.
Don’t try to figure anything out.
Don’t try to make anything happen.
Relax, right now, and rest.

~ Tilopa