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In The Blink Of An Eye

Written by: Elizabeth Noske, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcom Gladwell discusses the importance of understanding the strengths and weaknesses of making quick decisions. Neuroscientists have identified various parts of the brain which have a central role in the decision-making process. And what have they found? Basically, that different brain regions take charge not only for different kinds of decision-making, but also at different stages of the process. Have you decided to read on?

Apparently, it takes about 0.35 seconds for a fast pitched baseball to arrive across the batter’s home plate. It takes the batter around 0.25 seconds to initiate a swing. But add in the fact that it takes 0.0020 for the brain to respond to the vision of the ball being pitched, the batter has less than one-tenth of a second to decide to swing or not swing. How on earth does he, or she, ever manage to connect with the ball? Jonah Lehrer refers to the use of “anticipatory clues” that start to kick in the minute the pitcher begins their wind up. Many years ago, when I was playing country softball, two teams had highly skilled pitchers who were consistently able to strike out batter after batter. Where were the batters’ anticipatory cues? I think the short answer is that the batters did not yet have enough experience with fast pitches to accurately read the cues. A few years later, watching the same batters face the same pitchers, the results were considerably different.

So, how do we decide?

Way back in 1890, William James proposed two distinct thinking systems. One that was rational and deliberate, albeit comparatively slow, and another that was quick, effortless, and emotional – the ‘quick and dirty’ pathway, if you will. The key, said James, was to know when to rely on which system. Assuming, that is, that we even have a choice.

Although in the past it was the gold standard of decision-making, the old-fashioned opinion that logical and rational decisions are the only ones that are to be valued has pretty much gone out with button-up boots. Functional MRIs have done much to debunk this myth, but for now, let’s take a look at a real-life example from the mid-1800s. Phineas Gage, working with explosives on the railways, sustained a unique injury that he was fortunate indeed to have survived. When placing an explosive charge into a rock with a tamping rod, it prematurely exploded and propelled the three-food, seven-inch rod into his skull, just below his left cheek bone. It took out his eye, penetrated his prefrontal cortex, and exited through the top of his head. Not only did he survive, but he also seemed to make a full recovery. Lucky man.

But this is where his luck ran out. He was a fundamentally different man. As well as undergoing a personality change, and not for the better, he was no longer able to make a coherent decision. We now know that the decimation of his left prefrontal lobe destroyed the portion of his brain that controls emotions, thereby severing the important input that emotions have in the decision-making process. His rash and self-destructive decisions led to the loss of his family, his job, and his reputation. Not so lucky after all.

Apparently, emotions are much more logical than their murky reputation suggests. Professor Zaltman’s studies show us that 95% of our cognition happens in our emotional brain. Because they are so closely linked to both our survival and our wellbeing, it is our emotions that both guide our decisions and motivate us to act on them. Part of their competence is due to “the dopamine feedback loop”, produced by neurons that are able to detect the subtle patterns in the data that we would otherwise fail to notice, and can’t consciously comprehend.

Why is this input so vital? Probably because conscious attention is a limited resource. Ever tried to recall more than 7 digits in a row? Most of us bomb out at this particular number. We just don’t have the time or neural space to process large amounts of information, so we use our emotions as a cue system; using subconscious thoughts and feelings created by our emotions as an appraisal tool. Since our non-conscious mind is able to process 500,000 times more information per second than our conscious mind, emotional messages will be decoded ever so much faster, significantly reducing the demands on our limited attention.

But how can we be sure we are using the best system to make a decision? One rule of thumb is to use logic when the decision is an easy one, because if it is a difficult decision your conscious brain is likely to ‘choke’ on an overload of information and data, much of which may be irrelevant or superfluous – leading to a poor decision. Seems back-to-front, doesn’t it! Turns out our rational brain is not as logical as we like to think it is. It’s subverted by all kinds of beliefs, judgements, prejudices, and biases – most of which are below our conscious awareness. In fact, the current wisdom is that if you need to make a decision in a split second, go with your gut, especially if you have training or experience in a specific area. A professional golfer may analyze his technique and the execution of his shots in training, but that would be the worst thing he could do in competition. His body knows what to do, overthinking a practiced routine is the best way to ‘choke’ on information overload.

Carol Dweck talks about the importance of having a growth mindset, based on the knowledge that our brain learns best by trial and error. This is why airline pilots spend so much time in flight simulators, eliminating every possible error of judgment, so that the best decision in an emergency situation is practically a reflex response. But this kind of decision-making comes at a cost of the 10,000 hours required to become an expert in your field. When a mid-air emergency suddenly presents itself, there is rarely much time to analyse the situation, collect reams of data, consider the pros and cons, consult more widely, and come to a considered decision. Captain Sullenberger saved hundreds of lives when he made the relatively quick decision to land his stricken plan on the Hudson River, rather than risk a return to LaGuardia airport in New York City. Sully, as he was known, himself said, "One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education, and training. And on January 15, the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal."

Your brain surgeon, on the other hand, has much more time to make a rational, considered decision. Her years of training and theatre experience will likely provide some kind of gut (emotional) decision, which, if time allows, will be cross-checked against a more conscious consideration of the facts, but the minute a patient starts to bleed out, and she needs to make a split-second decision, then her gut decision is likely to lead to the best outcome for the patient.

Now, let’s look at some key brain regions that are front and centre of the decision-making process. In the past, case studies and autopsies were about the only way to analyze brain function. Damage to the limbic region has long been associated with poor, bizarre or dysfunctional decision-making and it is clear that the tamping rod that pierced Phineas Gage’s skull completely decimated the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in his left hemisphere. Dagher’s research on cravings and addictions recognized the regulatory role of the DLPFC in connecting with other brain regions in controlling compulsive behavior. In close proximity, just above the eyes, the orbitofrontal cortex relates to the emotions and the brain’s reward systems when making a decision.

The striatum, part of the basal ganglia that nestles deep in our limbic brain, is now recognised as a decision-making hub. Neuroscientists identified three sub-regions in the striatum, each of which has a different role and at a different time in the decision-making process. Let’s take a look at a real-life example.

You’re walking down the street, past the bakery where the smell of fresh bread and delicious pastries is wafted out onto the sidewalk. Your ventral striatum, with a distinctive role in motivation, immediately indicates that obtaining a Danish pastry would be an excellent decision to make right now. Very quickly the dorsomedial striatum kicks in, as the boss of adaptive decisions; considering the rewards and consequences of consuming the pastry. Meanwhile, the dorsolateral striatum has been firing shots bursts of activity, gearing up for the motor movement that will either propel you into the bakery or hasten you down the street, out of the way of temptation.

It is clear that we have certain windows of opportunity when it comes to making a decision. Our brain is constantly weighing up the cost-benefit ratio of any potential decision. Are we consciously aware of each step of the process? Probably not. If our striatum has decided that purchasing a pastry here and now is absolutely the best decision, then it would certainly take a conscious thought process to recall that we won’t drop that extra 5kg in weight if we keep giving into bakery temptations. It may also take quite a lot of self-control to act on this thought and walk away.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC), active in all decision-making processes, is particularly active when a decision requires self-control. ADHD is a neural difference as a result of lagging development in the prefrontal cortex. We are all familiar with the impulsive and hyperactive behavior typical of children diagnosed with ADHD. Those regions of the prefrontal cortex that inhibit impulsive behavior and manage self-regulation are simply not yet up to the job during childhood. Let’s face it, this really only became a problem once our society decided it was a good idea to sit young children in a desk for hours on end, with pencil and paper tasks to complete and limited physical activity. Hunter and gatherer societies would doubtless have no concept of ADHD; it could even be considered positive adaptive behavior. It’s also why most children eventually grow out of ADHD – as they grow ‘into’ their brain and the PFC finally matures and catches up to there more quickly developing peers.

For all it’s powerful cognitive abilities and incredible computation abilities, the PFC is actually quite fragile. It is incredible greedy when it comes to consuming the brain’s finite supply of glucose and it tires relatively quickly. I clearly recall the first few weeks of my new role as an elementary school principal. I was called on throughout the day to make decisions; big ones, small ones, important ones and insignificant irritating ones. When I got home at the end of the day and my family asked me what was for dinner, I finally snapped. I told them, with more volume and vigor than the situation required, that I didn’t know, I didn’t care, and couldn’t make one more decision for the day. My PFC was exhausted and had gone on strike.

You have probably experienced this kind of decision fatigue. It’s not just in your imagination. It’s an anatomical reality. It’s why parenting can be so challenging at the end of the day. Not only is our PFC exhausted, so too is your child’s much more fragile and less developed PFC. Put together in a situation with conflicting interests and the result is highly predictable, if not particularly pleasant for parent or child. Statistically, if you are a prisoner applying for parole, you have a much higher chance of being successful if your case is heard in the morning. By the afternoon, blood-sugar levels are dropping, decision fatigue is setting in and the panel are inclined to err on the side of ‘safety’ and keep the prisoner behind bars for a while longer.

It’s also why using our PFC to select a jar of jam from the dozens available on the supermarket shelf is not a good job for our PFC. Because it is so skilled at paying attention, it is prone to attending to unnecessary information, as well as the important stuff. Herbert Simon says that “a wealth of information can lead to a poverty of data”. By the time we have studied the labels for the list of ingredients, considered the type of fruit that will be acceptable to all members of the family, calculated the relative cost of different sized jars, and which varieties you have already tried and rejected… Well, frankly your PFC is feeling overwhelmed, is unable to make sense of all the data and is likely to give too much attention to irrelevant or superfluous information. You will either walk away with the wrong jam or give up and go home with no jam at all. This was definitely the best time to just ‘grab and go’. A wise person once said that PFC overload is the reason why perfectly intelligent people are inclined to make a foolish decision if they are given too much irrelevant information to weigh up.

It makes sense to outsource decisions to our emotional brain, where it processes the relative pain or pleasure that is a likely outcome of the decision. The PFC is more of a spectator until it deems it necessary to veto the emotional brain’s reward-seeking process. On the other extreme, people with autism are inclined to make decisions that are so rational and undoubtedly logical that they can be hard for others to understand and only make sense to the originator of the decision.

When decisions are to be made, either consciously or non-consciously, there is a constant argument going on in our brain. The dopamine pathways in our nucleus accumbens are driven by our desire, our insula is averse to risk and negative outcomes, which our PFC is busy computing the price (financial, social, or emotional) and really likes a bargain. When it comes to moral decisions it seems that our emotional brain generates a verdict, and our rational brain explains and justifies the verdict.

Of course, it’s not nearly as simple as I have made it sound. Our brain is uncomfortable with cognitive dissonance and so we silence it through selectively attending only to data and information that we consider ‘right’. It’s too uncomfortable to do otherwise. We also have many non-conscious cognitive biases, 180 so far identified, but still counting… We have a strong bias for certainty and will readily ignore information that challenges our entrenched beliefs, the ones that we don’t want to think about or that makes us feel uncomfortable.

And now, a word of warning. Jonah Lehrer refers to three reasons why we can be fooled by our feelings. The first is that our emotional brain is programmed to see patterns; it’s one reason why it is so fast at reaching a decision. But it is easily fooled by randomness, which is the normal situation out in the real world. The second is that our brain is more interested in avoiding loss than it is in winning. Although our feel-good dopamine rush encourages rewarding behavior, losing activates our amygdala and creates feelings of fear and anxiety, which are much stronger emotions. And we survived as a species by following our fear, more than by exploring the unknown and potentially unsafe, with the unproven hope of a reward. Thirdly, due to the power of dopamine, our emotional brain is easily tempted by short-term rewards and is inclined to disregard the long-term costs of a decision.

The good news is that regular mindful meditation practice can help us to make smarter choices. Meditation actually increases the physical thickness of specific brain regions, especially in the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes, both of which are linked to attention control. Compassion-based mediation increases the density of neurons in the limbic system and in the anterior insula, which helps to bring our emotions into our conscious awareness. A series of studies led by Andrew Hafenbrack found that mindfulness can also counteract deep-rooted tendencies and biases and so lead to better decision-making. Mindfulness can give your striatum and prefrontal cortex time to relay relevant information to other brain regions that provide important input into the process. Even a brief period of mindfulness can help people make more rational decisions, as it gives them time to consider the information available to them in the present moment.

Decision Making for Parents

All very interesting, but what does this mean for parents. Here are just a few tips and suggestions:

  • Have routines and schedules for everyday family activities and stick to them as much as possible. This reduces the need to continually make conscious decisions that overload the brain’s cortical regions.

  • Habits reside in our basal ganglia and are a shortcut to getting things done. Good habits will result in good results, but bad habits…not so much. So keep repeating the positive behaviors until they become automatic habits.

  • Have an understanding with your child about any activity that could be argued or debated; starting and finishing time for homework; the when, where, and how of screen time; rules about the use of phones and devices; bath time and bedtime; sports or music practice; chores and household responsibilities. Then stick to the rules.

  • Avoid making contentious decisions late in the day – your chances of success are low.

  • Low blood sugar as a result of hunger or low energy is not conducive to making a good decision. Stay hydrated and well-nourished.

  • Stress will push you into your downstairs brain. Too much cortisol in your blood as a result of the stress will make a fight-flight-or freeze reaction more likely.

Allow your child to experience the dopamine pleasure of making their own good decisions – and to learn from their mistakes if they made a poor one.

  • Model good decision making: “I think pastry sure looks good, and my downstairs brain would love to have it right now, but my upstairs brain is telling me that I’ll be sorry next time I weigh in”.

  • Appreciate that young children and those with ADHD will find it much more challenging to make good decisions and will need more parental advice and guidance from you.

  • Start your own meditation practice. For beginners, I suggest using one of the many online guided meditations. For example, on YouTube there are video clips for 5 – 10 minutes. Little bits often will give you a long-term result.

  • Use some of the amazing meditation activities for children. There’s a wide choice of books, videos, online sessions designed for children of all ages.

Finally, always remember these words of wisdom from Mark Twain: Good decisions come from experience, and experience comes from overcoming bad decisions.

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Check out her best-selling book Mindfull Parent: Parenting With the Brain in Mind


Elizabeth Noske, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Elizabeth is a unique parenting coach because she:

  • Made all the mistakes you could possible make as a young mother

  • Finally got her act together and went skydiving, hiking, travelled, SCUBA dived and played team sports with her children during their middle childhood and teenage years

  • Has formally studied the neuroscience of teaching, learning and parenting and is passionate about sharing her knowledge, expertise and insights with as many people as she possibly can

  • Believes that our brain has a mind of its own

  • And the only behavior we can actually change is our own

If you’d like to learn more, schedule a zoom meeting, email at, book a call on Schedule Once, visit her website, or join her on the Facebook Page Mindfull Parenting | Facebook. Her first book Mindfull Parent: Parenting With the Brain in Mind, is an easy to read neuro parenting book and her Mindfull Parent Turnaround Programs will support you through a process of changing your parenting habits.



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