The inability to make choices

Watching an episode from BBC series “The Brain with David Eagleman” I realize that normal people can do something I cannot: make choices.

Vanilla or Strawberry? Go left or right? Wear the blue or the green shirt?

ehhhhhhh………
pic by Svilen Milev

I don’t know and I cannot chose. I am unable to. I’m physically unable to. It just won’t come. I am stuck.

The documentary shows a lady who has the same characteristics. We’re both engineers and we both start to cry when having to make a simple choice.

Eagleman confuses choices with decisions which muddles up the episode somewhat. Decisions are rational processes and can be done by anyone or a computer when given the options, the parameters and the values to attach to the various components. I do these fine. Excellent even.

Choices are something different. They are rooted in personal preferences, whims and emotions. No one else can make a choice for you.

Ofcourse these are two extremes on a spectrum, in real life most decisions and choices have elements of each other. Decisions involve emotional whims and choices get based on rational arguments. But fundamentally they’re different.

Eagleman illustrates that to make a choice/decision both the rational part and the emotional part of the brain are necessary.
The woman had suffered brain damage in a motor cycle accident. She had the emotional and the rational part in her orbito-frontal cortex disconnected. As a result she’s now unable to make choices or even decisions. I don’t think she can work anymore.

She’s seen standing in front of a wall filled with different kind of potatoes and she’s just unable to actively pick one. She’s overwhelmed by all the options. She feels like crying.
She says she can’t process all the information, there’s just too much of it.

Tatertastic pic by Teresa Stanton

I have the same. But different. I can process all the information, I can see all the options, I can weigh them. But I’m not able to chose.
When it comes to a choice, where the options are rationally speaking all equal, I am unable to chose.

I come to a halt. Literally. If I push through I’ll get stressed and will cry. Just like the lady in the program.

Like I said, decision-making I do fine. Give me parameters or a goal and I’ll set out the best path towards it. I’m here for mashed potatoes? We’ll grab this one, it cooks to mush.

But you asking me whether I want fries or mashed potatoes for dinner? We’ll be hungry till Easter because I cannot make up my mind.

Easter Bunny Pals Deconstructed Fish Tacos LunchBot Bento< pic by Sheri Chen

This documentary points me to a possible cause: lack of integration between the logical and the emotional brain parts.

In me, I don’t believe it’s a physical connection. With me I think it’s a life long habit of preferring the rational and suppressing emotional processes. Not the touchy-feely weepy infatuated emotions but just the basic emotional running of the bodily system: small preferences, little whims, a tendency to make yourself comfortable.
I don’t have these on my radar. But I’m sure they’re there.

Eagleman and Reverse Therapy both offer the same location where to look for them: in the body. Focus on the body, relax and it will tell you what your emotional preferences are. A small tension in muscles; a little hint of drool at one option; seeing yourself in the near future with the one choice and liking what you see. Those are the clues.

doors pic by Ivan Malkin

I’m still learning to pick up on these. In the mean time I had developed some rational fixes to get to a choice:
1. in a choice all options are equal in value. Meaning there will be no wrong choice, whatever you chose. (realizing this eases my stress)
2. chose the option on the left.

It’s not ideal and it certainly doesn’t give the emotional pleasure of making the best choice but it gets me past the inability that hinders the lady in the documentary and that causes me so much stress.

Interesting stuff. This too fits in with the diagnosis of my illness. And my recovery from it.

Here’s the description of the episode I saw:

“The Brain with David Eagleman –
4. How Do I Decide?

Series in which Dr David Eagleman takes viewers on an extraordinary journey that explores how the brain, locked in silence and darkness without direct access to the world, conjures up the rich and beautiful world we all take for granted.

The human brain is the most complex object we’ve discovered in the universe, and every day much of its neural circuitry is taken up with the tens of thousands of decisions we need to make. This episode takes a journey through the unseen world of decisions, and how they get made. We start with a simple one – choosing a flavour of frozen yoghurt – and learn that every decision we make is born of a ‘winner takes all’ competition between rival neural networks.

We meet a woman who is unable to make decisions because of damage to her orbito-frontal cortex – an area that is key to integrating the signals streaming in from the body – and discover that feedback from the body is vital to the decision-making process. Dr Eagleman reveals that something as simple as when you ate your last meal can even influence life-changing decisions, as a study on judges showed they were less likely to give parole when they were hungry.

So many of our ‘conscious’ life-defining decisions are actually steered by unconscious influences, whether it’s deciding whom we find attractive or how to vote in the next election. Professor Read Montague reveals that he can be 95 per cent certain about which political party we will vote for based on our brain’s response to disgusting imagery. The more disgusted a brain response is, the more likely that person is to vote conservative.

Finally, Dr Eagleman takes a look at how we can take better control of the decisions we make, and uses an exciting new technique called fMRI neurofeedback to retrain the brains of drug addicts who want to make better decisions, to say ‘no’.”

Reasoning towards a meaningful life, part 6: having a heart

Having a heart is typical human. Compassion, love, delight, joy are important things. Emotions are important things. They probably should have a say when evaluating the worth of the life one leads.

 pic by Benis Arapovic

It is our heart that allows us to get ecstatic. I lack the right word in English for what I want to describe here, the Dutch word is “vervoering”. It is when you get swept off your feet. Experience something greater than yourself. It’s a good thing, an totally enjoyable thing. It has nothing of the sharpness that can come with the English word “ecstasy”.

The experience of being “in vervoering” can be prompted by a love experience, by your child, by your partner, by sex, by dancing, by religion, by a group experience. But also by a quiet, harmonious experience like as seeing a little child comforting its brother who has just bumped his head.

 pic by Jenben24

To be able to be swept off ones feet might be one of the most important things in a human life.

I also suspect that biologically it connects with the delight of sublime experiences I described in the previous part: having a brain.

Experiencing being swept of your feet cannot be judged with the brain. Or with moral values. It is outside the realm of things I use to conclude I’m useless in life.

PERVERSION
Experiencing this heart-thing or trying to relive the experience can easily evolve into perversion. Just like striving for sublimation to excite the brain can evolve in all kinds of addictions and mass delusions about what makes life valuable. Perverted excitement of the heart results in being overwhelmed by the emotions so much that you completely lose yourself and get truly rattled by that experience. It will make you feel desperate. Adrift.

SURPRESSION
Tempering the experience and being careful to never getting to the stage of excitement is no good either. You cage yourself. You hold back. You do not experience life to the fullest.

Getting swept of your feet is one experience that is powerfully clear in its message: “I am alive!”

No argument then. Experiencing the heart is one of the things that makes life worth living.

CONCLUSION

Being “in vervoering”, being swept of your feet, is something everybody needs to experience in life, at least once. It is one of the things that makes life worthy.

pic by Fernando Audibert

This is part 6 in a series in which I think myself towards a meaningful life. So I don’t feel worthless anymore.

1. being in existence
2. being human
3. being judgemental
4. having values
5. having a brain
6. having a heart
7. being me
8. being perfectionist or just admitting you can’t count