How Decisions Favor the Prepared Mind-The Synergy between Reason and Emotion

From Plato to Freud, from reason to cognition, we have traveled a long way to unravel the workings of how we make decisions.

Antonio Damasio and Antoine Bokhara in the 1990s introduced the Iowa Gambling Task, simulating how decisions are made. They learned that emotions’ react before rationality. This may not seem extraordinary now but it certainly was a breakthrough then.  

Feelings are saying something. But how should they be interpreted?

Sometimes they need to be listened to. When a child cries after falling, their emotion might need to be addressed. The child wants to feel safe and protected.

Sometimes emotions have to be bypassed as Captain Al Haynes did when he landed a severely compromised United Airlines plane in the summer of 1989. He said he felt like he was simultaneously living in two worlds: the world of emotions where he feared for his and the passengers’ lives and the world of control and rationality where clarity and correct decisions had to be made to survive.  

How have you been compromised by the exuberance of your emotions? Have you ever experienced what I call a split mind, fully aware of both your acute emotional state while needing to make correct life-saving decisions?

In Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide, he explains how the prefrontal cortex played a role that fateful day for Captain Haynes. Lehrer describes it like this: an experienced working memory is part of the prefrontal cortex’s flexibility. Problem solving, critical nuances are found in the prefrontal cortex whose neurons continue to fire after stimulus has disappeared. Emotions alone don’t resolve situations, rationality alone doesn’t resolve situations. Combining them creates the synergy to make successful outcome.

How can we regulate our emotions? The answer is surprising simple: by thinking about them.  Psychologist call this metacognition….The prefrontal cortex can deliberately choose to ignore the emotional brain:” According to the neuroscientist Benedetto de Martion, “’People who are more rational don’t perceive emotion less, they just regulate it better.” Now, that’s a profound discovery. Every emotion can be accompanied by self-awareness.

Aristotle, in his book The Nicomachean Ethic said that rationality wasn’t always in conflict with emotion….’Anyone can become angry-that is easy. But to become angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way-that is not easy.’ Is it important then to think about emotions in order to more fully experience them?  Yes.

Too much thinking can short circuit emotions. Choking in sports is an example. In the middle of a tennis match you begin to question what you are doing. That seed of doubt can wreak havoc on your outcome.  I remember a semi-final of a match of a tournament I was expected to win. I won the first set of this match. But for some reason, I tightened up, I was started to play to protect my win and as a result not only did I lose the second set, I couldn’t recuperate, and lost the third set. My emotions absolutely got in my way. I choked.

Sometimes we do better when we know less. Because working memory and rationality share a common cortical source-the prefrontal cortex-a mind trying to remember lots of information is less able to exert control over its impulses.

I believe the better we know our intention into going into something, the more effective we are at looking for the information that will guide us to the outcomes we intend. Know the emotion you want, use the rational brain to get you to your intended outcome.  

When have you integrated the emotional and rational brain for great results? What are situations where you have faced unintended consequences when emotions or extra thinking have derailed your intentions? How can you bring synergy to your emotions and thinking?

Leave a comment, let me know how your thinking and feeling support you in living a satisfying life.  

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