Who said that?: Understanding our thoughts to make the right choices

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Understanding how our brains process information can be a huge benefit in helping us make the right choices, maintaining good mental health and gauging our reaction to situations.

There is a common misconception about the way our brain processes information in which people believe they feel an emotion based on our cognitive processing of a situation. In fact, when processing information we feel emotion first and then the cognitive thinking parts of our brain kick in to try and find explanation and justification for these emotions. This is known as the Schachter-Singer Theory or the Two-Factor theory.

The Science bit

The first stop on our journey through our brain for any information process is the amygdala. This is the area of the brain which determines emotion and reaction. This process is extremely fast and is often the cause of our more impulsive and emotive behavior. At this point we haven't processed any logic behind these emotions and are thinking in a purely reactive state. These moments are usually the actions people refer to as instinct or a "gut feeling". This is important as it allows us our fight or flight response that has ensured our survival. In today's world however, this instinct is less important however it does allow us social emotions such as empathy.

After this response our prefrontal cortex kicks in to try and breakdown the situation and our response to apply logic to it. This is where we justify our emotions and reactions to something. It is also the change which allows us to determine an over-reaction and calm ourselves down or understand if we chose the right action. This part of the brain allows us our voice of reason but can be overshadowed by our first emotive reaction.

It is also important to remember this when dealing with someone else processing a situation. Depending on the strength of emotive response produced by the amygdala, it make take longer for the baton to be handed off to the cognitive thinking areas of our brain.

To put it simply

Lets use a modern pop culture reference to give this some easy to understand context. Let's take a look at the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory and two of it's most popular characters, Penny and Sheldon.

In this scenario, Penny represents our emotive response. She is first to react, impulsive, often makes the wrong decisions and is more susceptible to influence. She also often has a tendency to talk over Sheldon.

She is more strong willed and will often argue against the response of Sheldon. It is more common for her to overshadow the thinking of Sheldon. In the context of our analogy, this means that our emotive thinking is much more likely to be louder and influence us than our logical thought. Not always with the wisest of results.

Sheldon on the other hand (our prefrontal cortex) takes time to deconstruct a situation, analyse the variables and respond with a more measured and thought out reaction. While he tends to make more well informed decisions he struggles to empathise and understand the social cues of others around him.

Understanding how they work together

Another misconception is that these two centres of the brain work in tandem, in fact information is passed freely between the two but both are not engaged at the same time. Meaning that at any one time the voice in your head is either a Penny or a Sheldon but never both simultaneously. The two are a perfect duo when it comes to allowing us to process information but it is important to understand which "voice" you are hearing if you wish to make a balanced decision.

Which one am I?

Everyone has the capacity to be both but most people are closer to one voice or another. Many people are much more Penny than they are Sheldon as emotional survival and interaction with others has become one of the biggest influencers of our society. No one is truly one or the other but instead, image a sliding scale that measures our Penny/Sheldon-ness.

How can I change the voice?

The human brain is incredibly powerful when it comes to understanding and engaging it's different facets. Usually, awareness alone is enough to engage the other processing centres of the brain. Simply ask yourself next time you are trying to process a situation or make a decision "Which voice is talking right now?" and "What would the other voice say?" 

This allows us to find a balance between our inner voices and make better choices.

JAMIE DEL GROSSO

I am an award-winning creative director and innovation consultant from England. I work with various creative agencies, brands and art organisations to develop and deliver break-through creative and innovation concepts.

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