Scientific American has an interesting article that discusses how decision making wears out the human brain. What makes the article so interesting to me is that my brain is constantly overloaded. I am bombarded at any given moment with multiple streams of input. I face situations multiple times on a daily basis that require me to make strings of decisions. This has caused a long-term symptom in me. More on that in a moment.
Presumably, trying to control one’s attention and to ignore an interesting cue exhausted the limited resource of the executive functions, making it significantly more difficult to ignore the existence of the otherwise irrelevant inferior decoy. Subjects with overtaxed brains made worse decisions. These experimental insights suggest that the brain works like a muscle: when depleted, it becomes less effective. Furthermore, we should take this knowledge into account when making decisions. If we’ve just spent lots of time focusing on a particular task, exercising self-control or even if we’ve just made lots of seemingly minor choices, then we probably shouldn’t try to make a major decision. These deleterious carryover effects from a tired brain may have a strong shaping effect on our lives.
I strongly suggest reading the full text of Tough Choices: How Decision Making Tires Out the Brain. What conclusions can be drawn from this article? If the brain is like a muscle, then it needs time off. What sort of information processing exercises should I be throwing the gray matter that makes me who I am?
These findings have important real world implications. If making choices depletes executive resources, then “downstream” decisions might be affected adversely when we are forced to choose with a fatigued brain. Indeed, University of Maryland psychologist Anastasiya Pocheptsova and colleagues found exactly this effect: individuals who had to regulate their attention—which requires executive control—made significantly different choices than people who did not.
I know for a fact that I often make choices differently than I would have if I was not forced to operate under multiple time constraints. I do not relish making decisions on the fly, and I try to delegate as much as possible. Unfortunately, American business is not geared towards ensuring “executive function” will be carried out competently. There are no “smoke breaks” for your brain taken into consideration in a modern corporate organization, at least not a typical American run corporation. How much bad decision making does that lead to and how much does it cost? These are important questions.
While I cannot answer them, I do know that I need to be more conscious about taking brain recuperation breaks during the year. I cannot imagine anything but good effect from rest periods.