A man we’ll call Abner looked in his rear-view mirror recently and saw the flashing red lights of a police cruiser.
“Damn,” he said, pounding the steering wheel with his fist. “How could I have been so stupid?” This was not the first time Abner had cursed himself for making bad decisions. Not the first ticket for running a red light either. “What was I thinking?” he said angrily, slapping himself on the head.
Later that day, over a beer, Abner tried, in fact, to reconstruct what he was thinking leading up to his decision to run the light. He was determined to finally learn his lesson and stop getting these stupid tickets.
In reflecting on the events leading up to the ticket, Abner used a common-sense model of decision-making that I’ll call the “Debate Club” model. Here’s what he remembered:
As he approached the light, Abner noticed the newly installed “countdown” feature on the pedestrian signal. It was at “4.” Abner was meeting his new boss, Jerry, to take in a baseball game and talk about his new sales territory. Glancing at the dashboard clock, Abner noticed he was running late. His right foot tensed slightly on the accelerator.
The counter flashed “3” and Abner realized he might not be able to make the light. His left foot inched toward the brake. “What the heck, I don’t need to be right on time,” Abner said to himself.
Then the thought of his boss pacing impatiently at the ticket counter popped into his mind. “I’m going for it!” he thought.
But in the very instant that Abner’s brain sent the “go” signal to his right foot, he noticed from the corner of his eye a trash truck speeding toward the intersection from the cross street, and the “stop” signal went out to his left foot. Now he was starting to feel confused.
“What the hell,” he then said out loud, “you only go around once in life!” With a sharp punch on the gas, Abner made his bad decision.
This is obviously a caricature of decision-making in the brain. The brain probably doesn’t speak in full sentences, for one thing. Still, I think that most of us imagine some sort of weighing or evaluating process goes on when we make decisions — some form of cost benefit analysis, even if it’s crude.
But maybe not. At least this is the claim that researchers from cognitive science are making these days, as they learn more about how decisions are processed in the brain. The new scanning technology lets us monitor this activity in real time. Meanwhile, computer research in artificial intelligence has busted a lot of commonly held myths about how we solve problems, and ongoing experiments with brain-injured patients continues to surprise us with new revelations about how we think and plan.
All of this is pretty interesting from the point of view of behavior change — what practicing psychotherapists care about. But it’s fascinating, too, to speculate what it means about human nature. Because none of what these researchers are seeing looks like the Debating Club that Abner reconstructed in his memory of the traffic stop.
For one thing, even if our internal debaters spoke really fast, there just wouldn’t be time to weigh all the individual considerations that you know would be part of the dialogue. What are the chances of a police car stopped at the light? What are the consequences of a ticket, given my driving record to date? What will I do if Jerry decides to fire me? How good are my brakes? And do I have to be all the way in the intersection, or just the front tires?
If Abner stopped to process just these questions in sequence — and these are surely just a small fraction of the real-life doubts and worries that might flash through his brain — he would be a mile down the road before making up his mind. But people often make complex decisions in just a second or two. How does that happen? And, is there a place in the brain where this discussion takes place? The Debate Club model requires both a cast of characters — the debaters and the judge — and a kind of theater for the whole scene to play out, none of which appears to exist in our current understanding of neuroscience.
OK then, let’s look at the explanation from cognitive science, and see if that holds up better.
What if you dispense with the debating and substitute a sort of Ultimate Fighting free-for-all, with five or 30 or a thousand fighters slugging it out, and the one left standing is the winner?
This is the version of human decision-making offered by cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett and others. Dennett calls it Pandemonium.
Each fighter is a separate function of the mind — Dennett calls them “demons” — that “cares about” certain goals. An obvious example from Abner’s bad traffic day would be a demon that cares about meeting the expectations of parents or important life figures (such as Jerry, his boss). Or the vigilant demon that monitors Abner’s visual field for looming or fast-approaching objects such as cross traffic. Or two competing demons that approach decisions with either aggression or caution: the gas or the brake. You might even think of the pandemonious decision process as a fight between teams of demons controlling Abner’s brake foot and his gas foot. Brake, no, gas. Gas, no, brake. Gas!
This is not as far-fetched as you might think. One brain-injury-related behavior that has been used as a demonstration of these demons at work is called alien hand syndrome. In this condition, when communication between the left and right sides of the brain has been disrupted, the left and right sides of the body sometimes act at cross purposes.
Baylor University neuroscientist David Eagleman describes it like this: “A patient’s ‘alien’ hand might pick up a cookie to put it in his mouth, while the normally behaving hand will grab it at the wrist to stop it. A struggle ensues. Or one hand will pick up a newspaper and the other will slap it back down.” These patients have no sense that they are willing the alien hand into action, though it’s clearly behaving with a purpose in mind. Eagleman variously uses the terms “zombie programs” and unconscious “subroutines” to suggest that the competing demons in charge of the alien hand’s behaviors are operating outside of consciousness.
Artificial Intelligence scientist Marvin Minsky made the observation that underlies this Pandemonium idea several decades ago. If you begin writing a program for a robot to perform even the simplest task, you are immediately faced with a mountain of measurements and behavior options, which in turn generate new measurements and possible behavior options, spinning quickly out toward infinity. The computer power required to anticipate and calculate these permutations is mind-boggling.
But what if, Minsky theorized, it’s not one big program, but many small subprograms operating independently? This is, after all, how any large organizations operate to achieve their long-term goals. The brain, Minsky proposed, must work the same way. “Thousands and, perhaps, millions of little processes must be involved in how we anticipate, imagine, plan, predict and prevent — and yet all this proceeds so automatically that we regard it as ‘ordinary common sense.’”
But what about Abner? The one whose feet were on the pedals, and who sat over beer later reconstructing the afternoon’s events? Abner is not a robot, after all. It seems to him that he — not millions of little processes — is at the center of all the anticipating, imagining, planning, predicting and preventing. But Abner’s idea of how he made a bad decision at the traffic light may have the sequence backwards.
First, according to Dennett’s theory, the decision got made through fierce competition among demons fighting to control Abner’s feet. Only later (milliseconds, at most) did another part of Abner’s brain register the decision and concoct a story about Abner’s role in it. This all happened so fast that Abner was fooled into thinking that he was in charge.
But if we’re not actually making decisions from some control center in our minds, why does it seem so powerfully, so … palpably … that we are?
In fact, there is still plenty of controversy about where Abner fits in, and whether all the decisions are being made by battling demons. But thinking this way may be giving us clues that could lead to breakthroughs in the techniques of behavior change. What if you could operate directly on these demons, looking at how they help or hurt a person’s decision process, then strengthen or weaken individual demons as needed?
Along these lines, researchers at Baylor have done experiments with chronic smokers. They discovered, surprisingly, that different kinds of experiential learning related to decision-making is processed in different parts of the brain. Decisions with immediate consequences cause one part to light up — the striatum — while decisions with future consequences light up another — the lateral prefrontal cortical regions involved in more cognitive processes. Why should this matter?
Well, no doubt you’ve seen that shocking and brilliant anti-smoking commercial that shows the singing cowboy with the hole in his throat. That oughta do it, right? But neuroscience is telling us that the part of the brain that receives and processes messages like this in most people may not work very well in chronic smokers. So these same Baylor researchers have developed a high-tech, neurofeedback therapy that targets just this part of the brain, in an attempt to strengthen the demons that care about long-term consequences in smokers.
Why do some people seem to make consistently better decisions than others? Is it a matter of character? Or because some are more skilled in setting goals and executing plans? It appears not. The new science is saying that unconscious demons may be mindlessly competing in every moment of life to get their paws on the levers of control. Targeting these demons with therapies that balance their impact for better behavioral outcomes is still a distant goal, but an important one to pursue.
— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.