Have you ever wondered what happens when you decide?

Have you ever wondered what happens when you decide?

I have had the great fortune of having many parents of many good friends in my life. Many of them offering me sage advice and direction when I was feeling like I had none of either.

One such piece of advice from one such parent was, “Once you have made the decision, you must own the decision”. 

I have come back to this again and again. 

I think, for a few reasons. 

One, it has action in it - making the decision. Making the decision is the precursor to action. And the statement assumes that you are taking action - “Once you have made the decision”.

Secondly, it calls for a level of ownership; for accountability - and it states with an imperative - “you must”. There is empowerment within that owning though. It doesn’t say “Once you have made a decision, see how other people respond to it and go from there”. But that, I wonder, is what so many of us sometimes do. I wonder, in that case then, if we haven’t really made a decision at all. 

Understanding that life requires us to take action and own those actions is, I think, adulthood captured in a nutshell. 

“Once you have made the decision, you must own the decision”. 

But what happens when we decide? 

First of all the word decide

The Oxford study of language tells us that it comes from two Latin roots. De meaning off and Caedere meaning cut combining to form the Latin word Decidere - which came to mean “reach a settlement” in late middle English. 

There are a couple of things that I like about this. 

One, that deciding involves a cutting off. This, I think, is where our fear of deciding comes from. We don’t fear so much what it is that we are deciding, but all the things that we are cutting off in the decision. When I decide who to marry, I am deciding about all the others who I won’t marry. When I choose a school, I am deciding about all the other schools that I won’t go to. When I start a career in one city, I’m deciding about all the other cities that I won’t live in. In the immortal words of Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both”. I was sorry that could not travel both. Because that is the reality in our space-time continuum. Choosing one direction means not choosing a number of other options. And maybe as much as we sometimes want to believe those rainbow and sunset Pinterest posts, we actually can’t have it all. In order to take action in our lives, we must decide. We must do some cutting off.

Secondly, I love this definition of “reach a settlement”. Because there is often comfort in deciding. Comfort in overcoming that fear of what we might be losing in the cutting off of other options. And settlement is what our brains crave. Our brains remember stories that come full circle and music that comes to a full resolution. It is why we are waiting for that beat to drop. 

I asked Chat GPT what happens in our brains when we decide, and here’s the answer I got (for a neurotypical brain). 

When you make a decision, several processes occur in your brain. Here's a simplified overview of the steps involved:

  1. Information processing: The first step in decision-making is to gather information about the options available to you. This information is gathered by your senses and then processed by different parts of the brain, such as the sensory cortex, the thalamus, and the basal ganglia.

  2. Evaluation of options: Once the information has been processed, it is evaluated by other parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. These regions work together to compare the available options and determine the potential outcomes of each one.

  3. Weighing the costs and benefits: As you consider each option, the brain calculates the costs and benefits associated with each choice. This information is processed by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala, among other brain regions.

  4. Making the decision: The final step in the decision-making process is to select the option that seems to be the best choice. This is done by the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain involved in executive function and voluntary control.

What I find fascinating about that is, look at how many parts of the brain are involved in a decision.

Let’s break it down and see what each part of the brain does.

Sensory Cortex: The sensory cortex plays a critical role in allowing us to perceive and interpret the world around us. It helps us to distinguish between different stimuli, such as colours, shapes, sounds, and textures, and to form meaningful perceptions of our environment.

Thalamus: The thalamus plays a crucial role in the processing of sensory information, as it acts as a gateway between the senses and the cortex. It helps to ensure that relevant sensory information is efficiently transmitted to the appropriate parts of the brain, while also filtering out unimportant or distracting information. In addition to its role in sensory processing, the thalamus is also involved in regulating our state of consciousness and controlling our sleep-wake cycle. It has been shown to play a role in attention, memory, and emotional processing, as well as in the regulation of motor movements.

Basal Ganglia: the basal ganglia are also involved in some aspects of motivation and emotion. For example, they play a role in the regulation of pleasure and reward, and in the processing of certain types of anxiety and depression. They are involved in the regulation of movement, motivation, and habit formation. They are also thought to play a role in executive function, particularly in the regulation of action initiation and inhibition.

Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex: The vmPFC is also involved in the regulation of emotions and social behaviour. It helps to regulate emotional responses to stressful or threatening situations, and it is also involved in the processing of social cues, such as the emotions and intentions of others. In addition, the vmPFC plays a role in the processing of affective information, such as the recognition and evaluation of rewards and punishments. It helps to assign values to different stimuli based on their emotional significance, which in turn can influence our decisions and behaviour.

Amygdala: The amygdala is responsible for detecting and responding to emotionally charged stimuli, such as threats, danger, and other potentially stressful situations. When it perceives a threat, it activates the body's stress response, which prepares the individual for a fight or flight response. This can include physical responses such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and the release of stress hormones.

In addition to its role in stress regulation, the amygdala also plays a role in the processing of emotional memories. It helps to encode and store memories that are associated with strong emotions, such as fear, anger, or pleasure, and it is also involved in the recall of these memories.

Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex: One of the key roles of the DLPFC is in working memory, which is the temporary storage and manipulation of information in the mind. The DLPFC helps to maintain and manipulate information in working memory, and it also helps to coordinate the flow of information between working memory and long-term memory. The DLPFC is also involved in executive function, which is the set of cognitive processes that help to control and coordinate other cognitive processes. Executive functions include planning, decision-making, problem-solving, and the initiation and inhibition of behaviour. The DLPFC is thought to play a crucial role in these processes, helping to guide behaviour and regulate the flow of information in the brain.

So tell me, have you ever wondered what happens when you decide?

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