Curious Ways in Which our Brain Decides – Follow Up Article

woman playing chess

The last post of mine ended with two questions.

  • why does our brain use a particular way to make decisions?
  • And do we have any conscious control over it?

Understanding Neuroplasticity

Our brain’s amazing capability referred to as Neuroplasticity by Neuroscientists ensures the learning every day is used by our brain to adapt itself to the changing requirements.

Imagine a highway being used for fast moving cars and trucks.  If the roads become intuitive to the load and traffic and stretches itself to create more space for the vehicles, such a road will potentially solve all our traffic problems provided there is enough space available on both the sides.

Now if the traffic reduces, the road can now shrink itself back to the same shape it was earlier in, leaving more space on the edges.  This is just a hypothetical scenario but fits well into describing how our own brain works.

When we are engaged in an activity repeatedly, the brain realizes it to be an important action and begin to make more space in traffic terms for its effective execution.  This is done by making the neural connections amongst neurons (via dendrites and finally through axons covered with myelin sheaths) stronger leading to a smoother flow of information and completion of task without expending too much of energy. (fuel when on the road as there won’t be traffic snarls)

A new task on the contrary does not have such established neural connections and consequently it takes more time to finish any new job.  However, as we begin to do it repeatedly, the highway becomes broader and we tend to finish such an activity quickly with much lesser expense of fuel (energy for our brain).


Does Muscle Memory Exist?

What we refer to as muscle memory is in fact neuroplasticity as theoretically speaking there is no such thing as a muscle memory.  Memory remains in our neurons which then prompts our muscles to work in a particular way.

What happens when we abandon an activity after pursuing it for some time, let’s say a new habit we were thinking of developing but gave up like running or reading.  In such a scenario remnant of the earlier neural connections still remain embedded but forgotten and can be reactivated.

This implies the old memory can give us some head start when we plan to renew our vow to become more physically active or read that book still gathering dust on our table.

In order to conserve energy, our brain put about 50% of our activities on an auto mode requiring only half that needs our conscious attention.

Conscious attention requires a huge consumption of energy and thus our efficient brain attempts to put most of the activities on autopilot.


Intuitive and Logical Thinking

Let me give an example.

What is 2 + 2

An easy answer and I am sure all of us would have quickly realized its 4.

Now let me ask, what is 45*32

Well, this time the answer does not come automatically as you dig into your brain and try to work out this simple mathematical problem.

Some of the smarter people may divide 32 into 30 and 2 and then multiply it individually with 45 and add the result to arrive at the answer.

(the answer is 45*30 + 45*2 = 1350+90 = 1440)

A lot of us might use a different method, or probably take out our calculator or mobile to arrive at a solution.

We may also have people who might be familiar with numbers to the extent that even the multiplication of 45*32 for them would be like 2+2.

Their minds would have these shortcuts even for these kinds of calculations already well entrenched which they could retrieve upon when exposed to such a problem.


System 1 and System 2

So, when we were trying to add 2+2, a different part of our brain is at work (also referred to as System 1by Daniel Kahneman), the more intuitive one, which also tells us in the first meeting itself if we like the other individual or not or if we can trust her.

The other part does the more logical work of thinking and analyzing before reaching any conclusion. (System 2) If you are asked for your opinion on the quality of a company’s balance sheet, you won’t be able to give an answer before reading them.  That reading and then arriving at a conclusion based on data is what the other part of our brain does (pre-frontal cortex)

However, if you are told the name of the company then your mind might automatically try to relate the previous experience (good or bad) which will then affect your opinion even before you have gone through the financials.  This would be your intuitive mind at work again.

An opinion however developed based solely on factual evidence is driven by a different part of our brain.

We however, tend to use both the emotional and logical aspects of our mind to arrive at most of our decisions.  An over reliance on intuitive decision making can be harmful for us as it is laden with biases.

Whereas a strict logical thinking may prevent us from using our previous experience which may help us in case the factual evidence has been tampered with.

The way our brain makes decisions remains one of the most complex ways at how our mind uses its faculties.

We may come up with an answer immediately or may take some time to any question being asked, but that result does not tells us of the magnitude of activities that goes on inside our brain while thinking of that answer.

Psychologist Dr. Daniel Kahneman the winner of Nobel prize for economics was able to expose the limitation of both emotional as well as logical brain while making decisions proving how even smart people can at times make fundamental mistakes which we normally attribute to the naive.

I would recommend everyone to go through that book as well.

The link to buy – Thinking Fast and Slow

I look forward to your comments and feedback on this article.  If you found it interesting or drab, do let me know in both cases.

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