tom fox

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When the brain is forced to make rapid decisions, we are operating from a mental reflex that is associated with automatic response. This reactive part of the brain allows us to make decisions based on the least amount of information available, as opposed to the slower part of our rational thought process referred to as slow conscious reasoning.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explores this concept in his fascinating book, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. Throughout his research associated with cognitive behavior and decision making, Daniel has deconstructed the functions of how we process decisions. This can be broken down into two systems:

System 1 –  The rapid response system, or unconscious reasoning, that Daniel refers to as intuition — also called associative reasoning.

System 2 – The slower thought process that is required to make rational decisions that require focused attention. This includes complex analysis of information.

Dual Process Theory

Our exposure to the world and past experiences help system 1 gain information and develop a reference for making quick decisions. Once these decisions are programmed into the brain as a habit, it becomes very difficult to change. This is can be very beneficial to how we are able to operate — but not always.

When our impulsive decision making process of system 1 encounters a problem that requires more analysis and rational judgment, or if there is simply not enough information to draw a conclusive decision, system 2 is called into action. This is where we make more of our conscious judgments and better informed decisions.

The majority of our time, however, is spent operating from the reflexes of system 1.

This is true with many other habits and decisions such as how we spend our money, how we communicate with others, and what we eat. What’s interesting is that when we are experiencing these behaviors, we are under the illusion that we are the ones taking conscious action, when really, the decision or action has already been made long before we recognize that there was even an alternative choice.

In reality, we are reactive human beings. We are conditioned to react to situations as opposed to rationally considering them as requiring our focused attention. This is how we are able to survive and navigate while using our conscious focus for productivity instead of fussing over tiny details.

But not all automatic reactions are necessarily good ones, and some studies and experimentation have been able to demonstrate that our intuitive reflex should not always be trusted as the best way to handle something. Our automatic responses to situations that involve choice can spiral into bad habits and poor decision making if left unchecked.

Jonathan St. B. T. Evans and Keith E. Stanovich
School of Psychology, University of Plymouth, England; and
Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Positive Brain Training and Meditation

Behavior and intuitive abilities are formed through repetition and process. Strengthening the part of your brain that is responsible for rational and deliberate thought (system 2) will improve your ability to make well processed, creative, and sharp decisions much more often — as opposed to simply reacting to everything that comes your way.

You become better equipped to handle various situations — even through times of pressure and stress.

Practicing mindfulness and meditation is a very effective way to strengthen the creative center of the brain. This helps assess situations from a clear point of view to make mindful and productive decisions. This rational and creative part of the brain is the prefrontal cortex.

What is mindful meditation?

Mindfulness is the exercise of focusing your awareness solely on the experiences of the moment. Often associated with meditation, practicing mindfulness is a very effective way to develop more control over the mind and the direction of your thoughts. Meditation helps strengthen this ability by constantly bringing you back to the moment to moment aspect of your being.

This allows for unproductive and repetitive tendencies triggered by stress and other heavy emotions to give way to mental clarity, focus, energy, and openness.  We become less distracted by wavering thoughts of uncertainty and more able to operate from a place of serene control.

By bringing the mind back into focus over and over again, practicing mindfulness strengthens the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for conscious decision making, creativity, behaviour, and willpower. Mindfulness based meditation — among many other life enhancing benefits — also helps lower stress levels by reducing the stress hormone cortisol.