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How Do You Make Decisions? Not the Way You Think

Why 'The Brain With David Eagleman' series on PBS will shock you

If you are not familiar with David Eagleman’s work, you are missing out on some seriously fascinating stuff.

Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, is the author of the bestselling Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. He is also writer and presenter of the new six-episode PBS series, The Brain With David Eagleman.

In a recent episode, Eagleman explores the question: “How do I decide?”

Battling It Out

The brain’s various networks are in constant conflict with one another, he says. Logic versus emotion. Physiology versus intellect. Systems that favor instant gratification fighting our conscious willpower.

This is no plodding lecture in biology. On the contrary, Eagleman literally hits the streets looking for research subjects and goes inside operating rooms to explore how the brain works. And the results are riveting.

Eagleman concluded that our willpower can run out, just like the gas in a car.

I found two of the studies particularly surprising.

Body and Mind

Researchers in Britain conducted a test known as the Iowa Gambling Task. In the episode, a subject is hooked up to monitors measuring slight changes in her skin perspiration. On a computer screen, the woman sees four virtual decks of cards. Clicking on a card will indicate that she has either won or lost money. The goal of the game is to win as much as possible. Unbeknownst to her, this is not just a game of chance: Two of the decks are more “profitable” than the other two.

Here’s the fascinating part: The average person will eventually figure that out. But long before the realization enters her conscious mind, the subject’s body — based on the skin perspiration measurements — already knows.

A Limit to Willpower?

In another study, two sets of viewers watch a movie in which animals are shown to be in distress. One group is told to let their emotions come out, to cry if they feel like it. The other group is told to suppress any negative or painful feelings. After the movie, all the participants are given a “hand exerciser” tool and told to squeeze it as long as they could.

The results? The group that was told to suppress their emotions during the movie wasn’t able to squeeze the tool for as long as the “expressive” group. Eagleman concluded from this that our willpower can run out, just like the gas in a car. When used a lot for one purpose, it will not be available for another.

Which just may lead us to think, “Hey, I am off the hook when it comes to eating that cookie or setting aside some paperwork I need to do after hours. My willpower is depleted from all the effort I’ve already expended today!”

If it is true that we only have a finite supply of willpower in any given time, what are the implications for diets and spending, two areas of life that are top of mind for many boomers?

Help for Drug Addicts?

From there, Eagleman examines the brain’s role in drug addiction, focusing on his own experiments with addicts who are taught to suppress their drug cravings by watching on a monitor the craving and suppressing parts of their brains fight it out.

“She’s rewiring her circuitry,” Eagleman says of a former crack cocaine user.

Eagleman concludes the episode this way: “Neuroscience shows that you are not an individual; you are made up of multiple competing drives, and by understanding how choices battle it out in the brain, we can learn how to make better decisions for ourselves and society.”

See it for yourself. But watching The Brain With David Eagleman just about blew my mind.

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