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.

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