In what has become a normal evening ritual for two professionals working 60-70 hours a week, the question surfacing with my wife is “what do you fancy for dinner?”
Invariably, the first one to ask that question is the hungriest.
“I dunno” one of us responds. “What do you fancy?”
“Hmm” one of us contemplates.
This is a process that happens several times a week, unless my wife puts together one of her amazing, gourmet meals (she is a fabulous cook).
Turns out these decisions about what we want to eat aren’t rational. They are called somatic decisions. Meaning, it’s not just our brains deciding what we want to eat. It’s our gut, our body and our incentive centres in the limbic areas of the brain (the place of emotions) determining what we want.
In his groundbreaking work neuroscientist Antonio Demasio and his team have pioneered the concept of the Somatic Marker Hypothesis. Essentially, “somatic markers” work like this:
Ask yourself which do you prefer, chocolate or vanilla? Even better, imagine as soon as you finish reading this post you’re going to reward yourself with a chocolate or vanilla treat.
Which do you prefer? Why?
Demasio shows that your choice isn’t rational.
You actually weren’t cognitively thinking about the preference and deliberating like you’re trying to buy a new car or solve a math equation. It’s a simple question that your brain doesn’t need hours to decide. So instead of invoking a symposium on the matter, your brain developed a short-cut so you can get your pleasure of chocolate or vanilla sooner, rather than later.
Demasio calls this process a body loop, as in your body decided for you not your mind. The other loop comprising a somatic marker is an as-if body loop. Meaning, your body and brain project future pleasure and how lovely it will be to have the fulfilment of a chocolate or vanilla treat, as if you already have it.
How many of you are salivating right now thinking about having your chocolate or vanilla treat? That’s the as if body loop.
We make decisions in milliseconds because decisions are influenced heavily by the firing of subcortical structures in your brain, those areas that fire when emotions are being experienced.
Nobel laureates like Daniel Kahneman, to books like Blink, and neuroscientists like Robert Burton are completely overturning the Age of Reason mythology from the eighteenth century that man is a rational creature. When it comes to our decisions the areas of the brain that fire include the amygdala (emotional fight and flight centres), the anterior cingulate cortex (the error correction centres) the putamen, nucleus accumbens, ventral striatal and caudate nucleus (all involved in incentive and reward processing) and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (the area in the brain that helps us distinguish which emotions we’re actually experiencing).
Darwin Called it Before Anyone Else
You might be wondering why are emotions involved in making decisions?
Charles Darwin had the answer all along when he wrote The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals in 1872. The book was controversial at the time. Darwin basically detailed how animals have emotions (an idea that is now common knowledge), and how the vagus nerve (what was then called the pneumogastric nerve) was the key nerve that transported emotional messages throughout the body to the brain. In other words our “gut” influenced our brain.
The fact is all decisions involve emotions. Every thought you have is proceeded by, or perhaps driven by, a feeling, an emotion or a body sensation. According to Demasio it’s “the feeling of what happens.” Basically, decisions don’t happen without the firing of subcortical structures in the brain where emotions reside. And all decisions involve anticipation of rewards and incentives like how much pleasure I am going to get from this decision.
This means every decision you make you have a feeling about what the future outcome of that decision will be. Thus, you are wagering that the decision you make to do something now will bring about anticipated pleasure in the future.
In essence, decisions fire “bottom up” structures in the brain that are non-linear, irrational, emotional, and relate more to your feelings than your thoughts.
What My Uncle Leon Taught Me?
Recently, a group of us including my mother and cousins took my favourite uncle, Uncle Leon, to the MGM Grand Casino just outside of Washington, DC. We treated him to the time of his life.
My Uncle Leon is a long-time gambler. Going to the casino for him is like going on holiday for me. He loves casinos.
Usually, Uncle Leon loses most of his money. So this trip I decided to make sure he walked away with some money in his pocket.
As he sat at the slot machines I watched the process of how slot machines work at grand casinos like this, that seem more like an amusement park for adults. Lights blinking, energy buzzing, excitement building, food everywhere, people waiting on you, a truly intoxicating experience (can you tell I’m not much of a gambler?).
Because I spend hours analysing the behaviour of people, I decided to lend my expertise to the process of helping my Uncle Leon walk away feeling like a winner.
What I noticed was the slot machines seemed to be programmed to let you win within your first 5- 10 spins. Once the machines recognised you as a new player, the process of seduction began.
Like clockwork, within the first few spins people were winning bonus points. More bonus points meant more cash on your card when you cash out. But no one did. No one got up, walked away and went to get their cash.
Instead, everyone who won bonus points systematically gambled away those points and had “0” balances on their computerised cards. They then had to return to the kiosks and put more money on their cards to repeat the same process of losing all their money.
This process reminded me of Demasio’s ingenious Iowa Gambling Task to test impairments to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or VMPFC (where we distinguish emotions and make decisions).
The short version of this task is out of 2 decks of cards, 1 deck is low reward and low penalties for losing (the safer choice to guarantee consistent winning). The other deck has high reward and high penalties for losing (the riskier choice to guarantee you will likely lose everything).
Demasio noticed patients with damage to the VMPFC frequently chose the riskier deck and ended up losing everything.
I applied this research to my Uncle Leon and coached him to walk away from a slot machine each time he won bonus points. Because my Uncle Leon is a little hard of hearing, and a little hard-headed I decided to escort him away from one machine when he won points, to another machine that he seemed drawn to, only to repeat the strategy again and again.
As a result he ended up having an experience of winning small amounts each time he sat down at any slot machine. In the end he still lost more than he won, but he walked away with money in his pocket and spoke of that experience as “having the time of this life.”
The lesson here is focussing on small wins help you win more consistently. It helps you exercise more control over your choices. For us this meant getting up from each slot machine after winning small points rather than waiting for bigger points in the future. Focussing on bigger wins also introduces bigger losses, and the likelihood of losing everything.
Our Emotions Flavour Everything
My research at the casino was driven by an emotional commitment to ensure my Uncle Leon, who is suffering from terminal cancer, had the time of his life. Like it or not, emotions are behind every choice we make. Emotions are behind our research, empower our curiosity and flavour our decisions.
My argument is rationality is not the pinnacle of good decisions. Being emotionally resilient is. This is because change is not a rational process. It is a process of accepting unpredictability and chaos of the unknown. Resilience and antifragility require accepting the known and unknown realities that change brings. Emotions empower our access to information about our inner and outer worlds that the brain naturally relies upon to make better decisions. It’s “the feeling of what happens.” Do you want chocolate or vanilla?
To be more resilient, learn to trust your emotions and tune into them. Emotions can give you what researchers at the University of Chicago call a “privileged window” into making better choices and predictions about the future. This increases your resilience, improves the quality of your relationships, and leads you to smaller, more consistent wins.
In the end, smaller more consistent wins leads to greater chances of experiencing success over time.
Now please go and reward yourself with your chocolate or vanilla treat and thank your brain for being so irrational.