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Friday, October 22, 2021

The agony of multiple choice

A few years ago, science writer Jonah Lehrer stood in a grocery store cereal aisle, paralyzed. There were too many options: honey-nut Cheerios, regular Cheerios, multigrain Cheerios. The decision-making process was overwhelming – so Lehrer wrote a book about it.

Lehrer is the author of How We Decide, a book about neuroscience and decision-making. He will be speaking at the Mondavi Center tonight at 8 p.m.

In an interview with The Aggie, Lehrer said he wrote How We Decide because he is a pathologically indecisive person.

“I would have mild panic-attacks trying to buy toothpaste,” he said

In a season of multiple-choice midterms, the stress of decision-making is a familiar feeling for students. Lehrer explained that the problem comes from the actual structure of our brains.

The human brain has an extremely evolved prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain credited for giving humans rational thought. It’s the reason we make lists of pros and cons. It’s also the reason our skulls look different from chimpanzees’.

“When monkeys looks at humans they’re like ‘Man, they’ve got really weird foreheads,'” Lehrer said.

To make a decision, the prefrontal cortex fires away, trying to control the more emotional, fearful part of the brain. The conflict between reason and emotions is why decisions are so agonizing. When you get on an airplane, your rational brain will remind you of the statistically low risk of a crash, but your pesky emotional brain flash back to the plane-crash scene in “Lost.”

“Plato compared [emotions] to wild horses inside the mind,” Lehrer said.

Traditionally, psychologists like Freud wanted patients to control their emotions. But Lehrer said that opinion has changed over time. “Research strongly suggests that we should actually trust our emotions,” he said.

The emotional brain flashes back to past events and gives guidance for the future. If you survived the last plane flight, your emotional brain will be happier about flying next time. Gaining experience in a field helps the entire brain make sturdier decisions.

“When you compare a chess grand-master to a chess novice, the grand-master is actually thinking less,” said Lehrer. “His emotions do all his work for him.”

While experience plays a big part in decision-making, anatomical changes in brain function are important, too. Thanks to aging, a college student’s brain and a college professor’s brain might come to very different conclusions.

Lehrer said the prefrontal cortex (rational brain) is the last area to fully develop. While teenagers wait for their prefrontal cortexes to kick-in, hormones race through their limbic systems, the parts of the brain that control emotions and behavior.

“They don’t have the rational muscle, so to speak, to keep these emotions in check,” Lehrer said.

Hence the college freshman who decides to go car-surfing.

But mature adults aren’t perfect either.

“Sadly, as we age, the prefrontal cortex is the first brain area to sort of fade away,” said Lehrer. “It loses density starting about age 55.”

When it comes to picking a new box of Cheerios, Lehrer calls himself a “work in progress,” but he does have advice for other indecisive folks: chill out.

“Thinking too much is a real problem,” he said.

MADELINE McCURRY-SCHMIDT can be reached at science @theaggie.org.

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