It looked like a good idea …

I’m fascinated by how our brains and minds work. We like to think of them as loyal computers, reliably eating up the information we provide, and then issuing the ideas and directions we need to guide our lives. Long before we get to college, we have learned to trust our thoughts as showing us how “things really are,” and our plans and decisions as the way “things should be.”

Of course, from time to time, little breakdowns tell us that our brains and minds aren’t as reliable as we think (if this sounds circular, it should). A song gets “stuck” in my head. No matter how hard I try to stop thinking about it, I can’t. Or, a careful plan that I make for my evening goes awry when a conversation or a visit to the internet gets out of hand. What happened? Where’s my will-power? My self-discipline?

Even when these things happen, I may draw the wrong conclusions. I’m so committed to the “computer” model of how my brain works, I might just see these events as occasional malfunctions, something like the software conflicts that hang up my computer from time to time. However, an article, “Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue?” (NY Times Sunday Magazine, Aug 21, 2011) by John Tierney reveals that our brains are not the robot-like bits of gray matter that we expect them to be. Thoughts do not logically flow from input data. Instead, an array of factors like time of day, blood sugar level, physical and mental fatigue, the number of decisions that have already been made that day, all influence how our brain operates. A simple decision like, “I should do the next thing on my to-do list: study, arrange a meeting, sleep, exercise, wash my clothes,” can be subverted by factors that we are barely aware of.

Note: The Tierney article opens with a description of Israeli court decisions and how they vary with time of day. For more on this, see “Extraneous factors in judicial decisions,” S. Danziger et al., Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 108, 6889 (2011).

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