Seven years ago, when I first began sharing my thoughts with you, I posed the question: What are the neurological mechanics of decision-making? I was referring not only to decisions about our actions, but also to the method by which we form our beliefs and preferences, political and otherwise. What inspired that inquiry, at that time, was my observation that our nation was increasingly polarized both politically and ontologically.
Just a few years later, the situation has become dramatically worse. The fissure between the political factions is so extreme that communication, compromise and even simple courtesy seem impossible. Recent polls suggest that President Trump is approved by 82 percent of all Republicans while vilified by 89 percent of all Democrats. Robert Mueller is either viewed as a fair-minded prosecutor trying to save the republic or a vile conspirator trying to bring down our president. How can seemingly rational people view the same data and come to such radically different conclusions?
In my 2011 column, I naively suggested that the sweeping disparity between the two sides might be attributed to the use of deductive versus inductive reasoning. In an inductive process, the conclusion flows from the analysis of the information you examine. In a deductive scenario, your initial hypothesis colors the way you interpret your data. But I was dead wrong. While it is true that we all (Democrats and Republicans) seek information that supports our beliefs (called confirmation bias), it is not true that deductive or inductive reasoning has anything at all to do with the problem at hand.
To understand this problem, I went back and examined the advances in neuroscience over the last 50 years. I was amazed at how much we have learned about the functioning of our brains. For example, the utilization of “active MRIs” allow for us to observe the electrical workings of the brain as decisions are made. We now know that signals are sent back and forth from different parts of the brain when we are confronted with making a decision or indicating a preference.
Say, for example, that you have to choose between listening to some music or working on a project for your job whose deadline is at hand. You emotionally prefer experiencing the music even though rationally you appreciate the need to finish your project. Neuroscientists have been able to plot out an actual battle in your brain as different parts of “you” vie for control. In short, your emotional limbic system and your rational prefrontal cortex will battle it out. The limbic system will try to gain control by sending signals to your cortex suggesting that you do the pleasurable act while your brain will receive inhibitory signals whose purpose is to try to inhibit the influence of your emotions.
New York University neuroscientist Joseph DeLoux has done amazing work on this very issue. The conclusion of his studies is that your inhibitory connections running from your cortex are very seldom as strong as the impulses emanating from your limbic system. His conclusion is that our emotions control most of our actions. We may indulge ourselves in the notion that our reasoning is responsible for the decisions we make, but the truth is that we are first and foremost beings ruled by emotion. Afterwards, he suggests, we try to rationalize our emotional decisions.
Scientific research on these issues dates back to the work of scientists Hans Helmut Kornhuber and Luder Deecke, who in the 1960s discovered a way to measure and trace brain activity as it is occurring. Their work established that the process by which we choose our course of behavior occurs before we make a decision and the part of the brain responsible for rational conscious thought plays almost no role in what happens. They named this phenomenon a readiness potential.
Twenty years later, Dr. Benjamin Libet was able to actually pinpoint the “readiness potential” as occurring 0.35 seconds before a decision is consciously made. Nine years ago, brilliant neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes conducted a series of experiments wherein he asked people to watch a series of letters being displayed and then report on which letters are on the screen. He found that the unconscious parts of the brain were busy doing their work to bring about the eventual action seconds before the reported letter appeared, long before the conscious decision was made.
The work of these scientists was taken to a higher level when neuroscientist Itzhak Fried developed a procedure wherein he was able to observe the brain’s neurons directly during the human process of decision-making. Not only was he able to actually see the brain’s process, he was even able to predict the conscious decision with 80 percent to 90 percent accuracy. With the work of Fried and all those who came before him, the scientific community has come to the consensus that your conscious decision is really an afterthought.
The fact that scientists are able to observe and accurately predict the electrical dance that your brain goes through during decision-making has led many in the scientific and philosophic communities to conclude that decision-making is emotionally based. Our preferences in life are dominated by emotional preferences whose origins are a combination of our genetic makeup and environmental conditions. In other words, once our personality and value system are formed, most of our decisions flow from our emotions rather than from a fact-based analysis.
Some scientists go even further and suggest that the predictability of our actions is so extreme that we have no free will at all. This belief led scientist Isaac Bashevis Singer to comment rather comically: “We must believe in free will, we have no choice.”
Scientists, in my view, confuse the ability to trace our decision-making’s electrical journey through our brain’s synapses with determinism. The fact that we constantly have to balance our emotional and rational sides does not diminish the fact that we do experience the act of decision-making. Just as we have the power to turn down the music and complete the overdue project, so, too, we can at least try to remove our politically tinted lenses and observe reality in an objective way. Most importantly, we can once again commit ourselves to the values that make a democracy viable in the first place: respect for the honest exchange of ideas, and a realization that we are in this together. Until we do, things will get much, much worse.