It’s not easy for the brain to choose a long-term gain over an immediate reward—such a decision takes cognitive effort—which is why getting rid of anything that makes the choice harder is so important.—Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide
Every January people start yet another year excited about achieving their latest goals, hoping this is the year that they finally make things happen. Yet–tragically–most people give up on their goals before January is even over.
Why do people fail to see their goals through? Do they simply lack discipline and perseverance? Are most people so delusional they don’t care about achieving the goals they’ve set? While we could argue both those points, there’s still more to it–and it starts with our brains, specifically those parts of the brain which affect the decision making process: the emotional and rational brains.
It’s important to take the time to determine how it is you make decisions. Does the emotional brain persuade you? Or does the rational brain dominate? What are the pros and cons of the emotional brain and the rational brain? More importantly, is your current decision-making process–or lack thereof–holding you back?
Let’s start by taking a look at the pitfalls of being emotional-brain dominant. The emotional brain seeks immediate gratification and seeks to avoid that which it perceives as pain and loss. Further, in attempting to make sense of things (that may have no real explanation) the emotional brain looks for (non-existent) patterns. Yes, in some ways the emotional brain is delusional.
The immediate gratification aspect of the emotional brain makes credit cards and your emotional brain a disastrous combination. When using credit cards to make purchases, the brain doesn’t cognize any sense of loss. When pulling cash from your wallet, the eyes see–and the fingers feel–your wallet immediately lighten. In this way, through the sense organs, the rational brain will kicks in to supervise cash purchases. However, with credit cards, the rational brain often fails to show up–why is this? The eyes see something the mind desires and if no impending loss is factored in with an exchange of cash before you’ve consulted your rational aspect, the transaction is done by credit card. The emotional brain loves shiny credit cards and without the rational brain to balance out this unhealthy affection, you could find yourself in big trouble. That the average U.S. citizen carries over $10,000 in credit card debt is a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about.
Most of us can relate to the experience of receiving a credit card statement and feeling shocked and disbelief at the balance. We wonder how did all of the charges get there? The first reaction may be to wonder if your credit card was stolen! Then, as you carefully peruse each itemized purchase, reality takes a seat beside you. In fact, you did buy all those things and the total is correct. Promising yourself to never repeat this grievous mistake and wishing to celebrate your new-found discipline, you take your credit card to the local bar and buy everyone around! Yes, the emotional brain is easily seduced by that temptress, the credit card. To the emotional brain, credit cards offer the illusion of both immediate gratification and pain avoidance when, in fact, it is merely immediate gratification. Going into consumer debt, with its high-interest rate, is the epitome of pain and suffering, thus, paradoxically the long-term loss inherent to credit card debt is the very thing the emotional brain is so desperate to avoid.
Poor food choices are another example of the emotional brain in action. Since the long-term negative consequences of the wrong diet take time to manifest, the emotional brain hones in on the immediate gratifications of junk food. If consuming fast foods resulted in instant heart attacks or visibly expanded guts or–bam!!–cellulite, then it’d be easy to refuse. Unfortunately, the damage accrues slowly–compounding over time–much like consumer debt. Similarly–but with a different outcome–the positive effects of appropriate exercise and sound nutrition also take time to accrue–which is one reason why people find it difficult to stay the course. If people could join a gym and eat a few good meals, instantly gaining muscle and losing buckets of fat from a little proper nutrition and exercise, well, it would be easy to keep it up! Unfortunately for the undisciplined, the diligence of training and dieting is generally too much to ask of the modern person operating from the emotional brain. The entire process is instead (mistakenly) perceived as an (undesirable) loss. In this endeavor, we must harness the rational brain to help us see the truth behind the appearances. In this way, using both aspects of the mind, we can eventually meet our physical goals and the emotional brain can bask in the gratification of looking and feeling great. Without hitching up the rational brain, however, few of us are able to endure the discomfort, which is all too obvious when you look around you and see the current vogue of obesity.
Investing is another area fraught with disaster when dominated by the emotional brain. The emotional brain’s fear of loss causes it to miss the big picture–ironically creating more loss. According to author Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide) statistics show that from 1926 to the present, stocks have always outperformed bonds–with an average annual return of 6.4% versus 0.5% for bonds. Nevertheless, in an attempt to avoid risk many investors place most of their savings in bonds–and end up losing significant potential earnings in the long run. If people enlisted their rational brains in their decision-making process, they might realize that index funds (such as Vanguard’s total stock market fund) are safer, more lucrative, choices, especially for younger people with a longer time span before retirement. For those investors closer to retirement age, bonds can be a sound choice.
Another ambiguous brain terrain is your career. Emotional brain-dominant people often work–for other people–in jobs for which they have no passion, since the emotional brain, desiring to avoid (perceived) loss at all costs, will resist the risks of pursuing your dream occupation. “Risk aversion” is the excuse people make for remaining in hateful jobs while postponing their true vocations. Yet the current economic crisis clearly proves that job security is as big an illusion as ever existed. The reality? You’re better off recognizing what it is you want to do for a living, then creating a plan (and putting in the necessary effort) to get there. However, first, you’ll need to win over the emotional brain and its inherent reluctance to take risks and avoid perceived loss…that or do a hard time in a miserable job. It all depends on your definition of “loss”.
After reading this much about the emotional brain, you might think the rational brain to be superior. Not so fast! Before attempting to relinquish all emotion and become a real-life Mr. Spock, let’s take a closer look at the shortcomings of the rational brain. According to Lehrer, relying too much on the rational brain leads to over-analysis, which results in inaction. In addition, the rational brain can cause you to overvalue information, i.e. sensory input, if not balanced with the intuitive cognition of the emotional brain. Finally, while the rational brain loves information, it can only handle so much at a time. Too much information creates a state of overstimulation, which leaves the mind distracted and confused, thus understanding little. Rational brain-dominance retards your overall growth potential.
Any time you learn a new skill the rational brain comes into play. Remember when you first learned to drive a car? Everything was new so your rational/conscious brain broke the skills down move by move: fastening the seat belt; shifting into the drive, and pressing the foot to the accelerator pedal. Over time, as you acquired the skill of driving and the task shifted to the emotional brain, the rational brain played a less significant role. In short, once you know what to do, you needn’t consciously think about it. (On the other hand, given the skill set of the typical Las Vegas driver, most would do well taking a step back and letting their rational brains do the driving–perhaps they never brought them out in the first place!)
To recap: learning a new skill is the domain of the rational brain but once you’ve assimilated that skill, the emotional brain retains the memory. This is efficient since the rational brain can only process a limited amount of information at a time. Once the skill is acquired, the rational brain empties its cup to the emotional brain to better analyze new incoming information, leading to new skills. If you continually function from the rational brain, your thinking pathways will quickly become rife with clutter. It’s the sleek emotional brain that operates without the clumsy burden of conscious thought, thus the rational brain can purge its tendency to excess baggage.
Still, there’s a hitch: you must consciously choose to enlist the counsel of both the rational and emotional brains. Otherwise, it’s too easy to favor the one while avoiding the other. Engaging the rational brain to learn a skill, then assigning the memory to the archival emotional brain requires letting go of the conscious thought process–which is easier for some than others. But hoarding skills in the rational brain is the source of pedantry, among other character flaws. Attachment to the rational brain (or the emotional brain–or anything else!–for that matter) is a habit, a form of comfort. If it’s an entrenched habit, even life long, learning to re-wire the brain for better balance will take time and conscious effort. The good news is you can use the rational brain to acquire some new, intuitive/emotional skills! It all starts with learning more about your true self and understanding how your mind functions. Not an easy task but truly the most important task of your lifetime.
You see, while the rational brain is great at researching and analyzing information, it is not very good at distilling emotional truths, i.e., assessing what it is you really want. If you‘re continually amassing and scanning information, your emotional brain is blocked from doing what it does best, that is, discerning truth from appearances. This is why over-analysis is simply another form of distraction–what I l call active procrastination. As long as you continue to research and analyze, you preclude the emotional brain from making any decisions, and in this way, you’ll never see any action. In fact, this is how to delay action indefinitely, since the action is defined by the possibility of failure. As long as you fail to act, you’ll never have to worry about falling out in the world–or so the rational mind would have you believe. Of course, you’ll fail to pursue your goal, but somehow this detail gets overlooked in the analysis of the externals.
Too much information is like too much food, you choke and go into a panic. The key is to choose your sources of information wisely, using discernment. The rational brain is like a valued servant, blocking the mind’s entrance from street riff-raff. Use the rational brain to acquire the appropriate information in the right amount of information, then take some time off from data processing to make any relevant decisions. Genuine wisdom requires both aspects of the brain.
For example, let’s say you wish to decide whether to quit your job in order to pursue something more meaningful. First, using the rational brain, consider the pros and cons, once you’ve done a thoughtful analysis, allow yourself some time to digest your thoughts. The emotional brain, through the process of discernment, can then assimilate that which is in your best interests, discarding any, well, rationalizations! Thus the rational brain assays the options while the intuition of the emotional brain extracts the essence, collaborating in a wise decision.
Over-reliance on the rational brain equates to over-reliance on dubious information, i.e. sensory input, and can result in poor performance. To illustrate this point, Lehrer references a study from Stanford University wherein the study subjects consumed an energy drink prior to completing a test. Group A paid full price for the drink while Group B was offered a significant discount for the same drink. The full price group outperformed the discount group. It seems that Group B assumed their discount drink was inferior and so their performance suffered. This is a case of the rational brain drawing a conclusion from an arbitrary price, which is simply information. Assuming you get what you pay for can have a shadow side since that which costs more money isn’t always superior to that which costs less. It can be complicated, which is why we need our archived, intuitive/emotional intelligence. It is neither adequate nor wise to solely rely upon sensory information via the rational brain.
In order to make good decisions, we need to be well-informed, but too much information (or even too much information access) can be overwhelming. This brings to mind the typical person I encounter within the fitness world. Most people have neither the patience nor discipline to adhere to a single program long enough to derive its maximum benefit. For example, one week they’ll commit to training for a kettlebell sport competition, then they read an article about Clubbell training and switch tacks. The following week, a new magazine comes out with a feature article on Strongman training our trainee get excited. Then it’s all Strongman training for a week or so until they read about the benefits of sandbag training…you see where this is going.
Sometimes the best move a trainee can make is to assess his goals and choose a program–then avoid doing any further research for the duration of that program. Follow the program from start to finish with no modifications or rationalizations. Then re-assess and do some more research. This is harder then it may sound! In our information glutted society, with myriad free programs on the Internet, plus books and magazines fitness and training, it’s no wonder people have difficulty picking one program and persisting, since choosing one program entails a sense of loss over all the other programs out there. Let the rational brain assess your goals and resources, then access the emotional brain’s cognition of the appropriate course of action. Intellect is a powerful tool, but an imbalance of intellect can narrow your field of vision.
So at this point, it sounds like the rational brain and emotional brain are both flawed. Perhaps they are, in their lower, undeveloped natures–as are we all. The best we can do is to continually refine our rational and emotional processes so that we’re functioning at a high level of cognition. This requires a balancing of both the rational and emotional brains, which amounts to a friendly dialogue between the two. In this way, the emotional and rational brains regulate each other. We need ready access to both aspects in order to make our best decisions. We can regulate hyper-emotional response by pausing and allowing the rational brain steps in and assess any situation. On the other hand, we can regulate rational thinking by cutting off analysis before it goes into overload, cutting off further sensory input, and appealing to the emotional brain for guidance.
The emotional brain informs you of what it is your heart wants while the rational brain puts together your best plan for acquiring it. After you’ve done the requisite research with the rational brain, it’s time to take a break and let the emotional brain and its intuitive aspect come up with an original idea. When you are tempted by impulse purchases, give the rational brain some airtime and initiate an internal discourse. The rational brain can help you delay gratifications and even help you see the merit in making present sacrifices for future rewards. On the other hand, the emotional brain will help you live in the moment instead of always awaiting a future that never arrives. Of course, it’s all about balance: too much-delayed gratification detracts from the joy of the present moment while too little delayed gratification prevents putting necessary plans in place for the future. In order to live life fully, we need to master the best aspects of both the rational and emotional aspects of ourselves.
Too many people live their lives on autopilot, never understanding why they feel so much agitation and dissatisfaction. Taking time to think about who you are–and how you make decisions–is very important to your overall well being. Failure to achieve your goals is usually due to your own flawed decision-making processes. Take the time to observe whether you are emotional brain dominant or rational brain dominant. What effect has this had on your life? Don’t just assume things will simply get better with time, time is fleeting. Instead, learn more about yourself and how your mind works and make things better now.
Live Life Aggressively!