Category Archives: Brain Matter

You don’t have time to think up there, if you think you’re dead

Ever had a tough time making a decision? Of course, we all have. Wouldn’t it just be easier to be Mr. Spock and make every decision based on logic? Unfortunately, that doesn’t work either. Since I am a person that often cannot decide what to eat for dinner let alone make major life decisions, I was fascinated by this readHow We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer. What I learned was quite a bit about how our brains make decisions.

Ironically, the author begins the book in a flight simulator. I can readily identify as I am a pilot as well and the wonderful benefit of a flight simulator is that you can investigate your own decisions without actually suffering the consequences (you know, like slamming into the ground at 200 miles per hour) (Lehrer xiii). As it turns out, even in a flight simulator where things are very mechanical and flying itself adheres to unbending laws of physics, math and gravity, making every decision based on rational thought and logical thinking can still crash the plane. The fact is humans are not rational beings (Lehrer xv) and that’s a good thing.

It is long been known that there are two sides to our brain. One more logical and one more emotional. However, it turns out that these two sides must work together to make good decisions. Sometimes we need to listen to our emotions and sometimes we need to reason through our options and make a logical decision, but other times we use them both; the secret is knowing when to use the different styles.

How do pilots make split-second life or death decisions? How does Tom Brady make a decision about when to throw a football based on just a few seconds of time before he gets sacked? How does a baseball player know when to swing at a pitch when it is not physically possible for him to initiate the swing and hit the ball after the ball is already on its way to the plate? How do you know when you’ve made a good decision about a career choice or who you will marry?

Let’s explore how the human mind makes decisions and how we can make those decisions better (Lehrer xvii).

Would you be amazed to know that the best quarterbacks don’t actually think when they are in the pocket. There’s not enough time and there’s too many things happening, too many variables to adjust for: receivers get pushed off their routes, passing angles get cut off, inside blitzes surprise blocking backs and the wrestling match going on at the offensive line is anybody’s guess (Lehrer 5). “Each pass is a guess, a hypothesis launched into the air, but the best quarterbacks make better guesses,” (Lehrer 5).

A quarterback’s brain is processing tons of different bits of data, drawing on past experiences, making calculated guesses about whether a receiver will break free and where he will be in a few seconds, whether his tight end will pick up the blitz, and will the defensive end drop back into coverage? The best quarterbacks, Peyton Manning, John Elway, Tom Brady, Joe Montana and so on, are the ones that had the ability to find the right receiver at the right time (Lehrer 5). But how is all this information processed in a matter of seconds?

“It’s as if his mind is making decisions without him,” says Lehrer (8). Even the QB’s aren’t sure how they do it: “I don’t know how I know where to pass…there are no firm rules, you just feel like you’re going to the right place…and that’s where I throw it,” says Brady (8).

It’s like the great line from Top Gun, “you don’t have time to think up there, if you think, you’re dead.” Turns out, based on Lehrer’s research that both Tom Brady and Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell have already done the thinking ahead of time.

  • When a quarterback is drawn to a specific receiver, or  you’re drawn to a certain entreè on the menu, or particular romantic prospect, the mind is trying to tell him (or you) to choose that option as the mind has already addressed the alternatives, in an analysis that takes place outside of conscious awareness (Lehrer 18)
  • Research on individuals with brain damage who do not experience emotion and only make choices based on logic, have tremendous difficulty making decisions (Lehrer 15).
  • The world is full of things to choose from – our feelings help us make the choices

Turns out we need our emotions, sorry Mr. Spock, Maverick was right.

Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.


“Obviously a major malfunction”

On January 29, 1986 I turned on the TV as the Space Shuttle Challenger climbed gracefully and powerfully into the sky, then watched as it exploded. The public affairs officer narrating the launch said those fateful words heard ’round the world: “Obviously a major malfunction.” In 1977, two Boeing 747’s collided on the runway on… Continue Reading

The Habit That Changes Everything

We live in an interesting world. As a species, we are pre-disposed to follow the person who seems to know what’s going on. It’s probably a survival instinct. We often will see a visionary leader, someone who is inspirational and colorful and full of initiative, courage and new ideas. Then everyone gets on board behind… Continue Reading

Diversity is the way we make good decisions

How we make decisions is an argument between our rational and emotional brains. We should always at least entertain competing hypothesis (Lehrer 247) and continually remind ourselves of what we don’t know (Lehrer 247). General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, in the first Gulf War used to tell his intelligence officers to first… Continue Reading

Let go of your conscious self and act on instinct

Have you ever had that situation in which you struggled with a problem and when you thought of the answer it was so obvious that you wondered why it took you so long? That’s essentially because your mind has been spending its time coming up with numerous, largely worthless solutions, before the eureka moment (Lehrer… Continue Reading

Why you should carry cash

If our dopamine is supposed to help us make good decisions, why do we continue to make bad decisions, like getting into debt, thinking irrationally, and pursuing the short term benefit, rather than seeing the long-term outcome?  Because dopamine isn’t the only thing working inside our heads. Hey, ya like losing? Right. Me either. That’s… Continue Reading

Dope is my co-pilot

Dopamine. Turns out that little awesome molecule is an awesome indicator predictor of events and helps us make decisions (Lehrer 34-35). When our nuclear accumbens (NAcc) is stimulated (that’s a part of our brain that generates pleasurable feelings) it triggers a massive release of dopamine (Lehrer 34-35). Continuous stimulation of the NAcc renders us worthless,… Continue Reading