Imagine that you have just come out of a bar and a 20 euro bill is lying on the floor. Would you leave it where it is? Would he sneakily pick it up, keep it, and keep it? What do you think the election would depend on?

We will all agree that both our previous history and the current moment will influence the decision. It would not be the same in a month in which we were “somewhat tight”, if we saw that someone was close or if we had had a similar previous experience in which our reaction was wrong.

It is a few seconds. He reaches down and picks it up. Lift your head. What will he do? It is quite possible that what you believe was not exactly what you ended up doing. A lot of things are happening in his brain at that moment. A large amount of information is being exchanged. And the most interesting: not all point to the same conclusion.

Rain of information prior to decision making

Since we are born we are processing information and learning from the environment. Our brain changes based on experiences and this becomes a starting point for new ones. In short, it allows us to predict.

In certain situations (the one at the beginning, for example) very different areas of the brain are activated. These provide qualitatively different information: the emotional component; memory, both of our experiences (autobiographical) and of our knowledge (semantics); the analysis of the consequences; advantages and disadvantages … Many times automatically.

Even the body’s information about its own sensations. All these aspects provide data to facilitate the final decision. How? Reducing the available options (which, first of all, are many) to a smaller and easier to handle set.

Perhaps this will shock you. Did you think that every decision is thoughtful and rational, based on the analysis of all the pros and cons? Most of the time no.

Reason versus emotion?

The work done by Antonio Damasio, mentioned in several books, such as Descartes’s mistake or And the brain created man, points out a fundamental hypothesis to understand how we decide: the somatic marker.

It is often thought that the rational, “cold decisions”, is what must be taken into account to make an adequate decision, without errors. However, what Damasio and his team show after studying patients with brain damage is that reason without emotion leads precisely to less wise decisions. Patients, by the way, with a lesion in the orbital prefrontal cortex, a fundamental structure for integrating emotional information in decision-making.

What is more interesting is that, according to Damasio, the emotions that arise from the body itself (and are recorded in it) must accompany that rational and cold point so that there is an adequate response to what the environment demands. A requirement for our decision to be adequate and to be modified as we receive feedback.

But among so many systems that seem to act alone, don’t you get the impression that in the end you don’t decide anything? Does your brain rule for you?

Free will

Thus related, it seems that one sits and waits for his brain to debate and decide the most appropriate way to act. That he is simply going to whisper to us to execute it, with the sweet feeling that we are the ones who decide. Not a funny perspective on who we are, right ?: Everything but free.

This idea is reflected in the studies of the neurologist Benjamin Libet in the 70s. Several of his investigations showed that the way the brain works seems to leave little room for our freedom.

Many times, before making a decision (or rather, deciding what to do), areas of the brain related to action are activated. Therefore, the decision would be made before, subjectively, we consider it as “chosen” by us.

From this fight of opposites (of systems that process different information) an adapted response would emerge. “We” would just execute it. This, however, would be a major incoherence: if your brain decides for you, who decides for your brain? An infinite regression, it seems.

Perhaps the perspective could be different, as it is presented today. The brain has many automatic processes and they all provide different information. Depending on the situation or our experience, they narrow down the options to facilitate the response.

In addition, it does so in a continuous loop to be able to adapt as events unfold. Now, the way in which the options are reduced is not as intuitive as we think. And the contribution of memory is an example of this.

The role of memory

According to a study by the Berkeley Hass School of Business at the University of California (United States), when making decisions we do not choose what we like the most, but what we remember most recently.

Something counterintuitive at first, but that has some logic when we put it in context. The contribution of memory to the decision-making process would simply focus on pointing out what is recent, what is most available.

The interesting thing about memory is that it is not a system that perfectly reproduces the facts, but a continuous reconstruction that gives rise to unlikely events. For example, false memories (things that did not happen but we think they did), modifications or deletions of events (distortions) or situations that remain more clearly recorded (in general, flash or very emotionally important memories).

Our imperfect memory also collaborates in that decision-making. Even thinking ahead to see the possible consequences.


Shutterstock / Golden_Hind

Therefore, when we are taking money from the ground, many data, sensations and emotions are delimiting the valid alternatives for that moment and ticket. They will vary with each new data in the environment (someone walking nearby, the face of our companion if there is one …).

If we think about our own experience, we probably remember having found a banknote without an owner numerous times, but not having acted in the same way. The reason? Our brain and our body marked different paths from which to choose.

Even reading this article may also influence your decision the next time a ticket is found. Something that will also depend on your memory, among other things.