Archive for September, 2011


Imagine your brain.

Hopefully, you saw a picture of a human brain at some point in life so you can imagine it now ;). A rough idea is enough.

The human brain

The cerebrum with its gray matter is the largest part of your brain. It lies around most other structures of the brain and plays a role in building intelligence and wisdom. (The heart and the gut system play a role as well.)

The cerebrum is divided into the right and left hemispheres. The common generalization is that the left hemisphere is responsible for analysis, rational thought, linearity or order, while the right hemisphere is responsible for synthesis, emotion, non-linearity and art. In practice, the division is not so clear as the same function can be present in both hemispheres but in different degrees. But there is usually a strong dominance of one hemisphere or another for the given task.

Both hemispheres are connected by corpus callosum, a thick band of nerve fibers in the middle of the brain. The corpus callosum allows the hemispheres to communicate to each other by exchanging motor, sensory, and cognitive information. In a well-functioning brain, there is a constant vibration in the corpus callosum, where information and learned patterns cross with the feelings and holistic views.

The Loop

So, we have Knowledge and Emotion, which in a simplified view can refer to the left and right hemispheres, accordingly. And there is the meeting point, the connection between them – the corpus callosum. And this is a point where the Intelligent Knowing occurs.

We can also look at the Knowledge-Emotion loop somewhat differently. The function of the brain is to acquire Knowledge. All the learning we do and memories we store become the ingredients of Knowledge.  The function of the heart-gut system is to supervise the Flow and feel Emotion. The Inspired Knowing occurs then in the heart. Later the Intelligent and Inspired Knowings are combined.

In practice, this high level integration of Knowledge and Emotion is more complex than I’ve just described. There are possibly many loops of communication between brain and heart, based on various networks of nerves such as solar plexus.

Knowledge vs Knowing

Note that Knowing is very different than Knowledge.  The key understanding is that Knowledge is the result of learning, an outcome of inquiry, analysis, reflection and conclusion. It can be collected, explained, structured or enumerated. It is a half of the whole. The other half is Emotion. Emotion allows us to experience and value the experience, to color things and give additional meaning.

Knowing is the spark at intersection, occurring in a moment in which you paint Knowledge and Emotion on the canvas of perception. It is an integration process where flow happens both ways.

Knowledge is external. Knowing is internal.
Knowledge is historical. Knowing is in a moment.
Knowledge is common. Knowing is personal.
Knowledge is experienced or shared by many. Knowing is experienced by you.
Knowledge is based on collected observations. Knowing is based on a perception in a moment.
Knowledge is passive. Knowing is active.
Knowledge is a product. Knowing is a process.

Life is a dynamic experience. Knowledge is the necessary foundation of life, but it has to be constantly updated and transformed. Sometimes in a revolutionary way.

When Knowledge is challenged, learning will take place. Old patterns will be questioned and replaced by new ones. This is only allowed if your Emotional Self accepts it. So, any significant progress requires an informative balance between Emotion and Knowledge (rational thought). And this equilibrium is achieved at the point of Knowing.

Tell me, are you Knowledge-able or Knowing-able?

Your Inner Knowing is already there. Recognize it.


For those who pay attention, this short post is of course about Intuition. From a different point view.


Photo copyright by Moyan Brenn. Photo available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.




How would you characterize your best personal decisions?

Think about it.

What is coming to your mind?

  • Are you thinking about producing results, personal growth, or a great outcome?
  • Are you thinking about a more balanced living as a result?
  • Are you thinking about fast decisions, in which you joyfully skipped the agonizing pain of analyzing all options?

Any of these or something else?

Best decisions is not what matters

While we like to talk about good and bad decisions, the factor of goodness is completely irrelevant in a decision making process. Why? Because the goodness criterion is hard to implement into this process.

“Bad” and “good” is all about judgment which you can only make while looking back, isn’t it? You judge your decisions as good when you experience its benefits or you produce results that exceeded your projection from the past.  You can call it “connecting the dots” or “understanding”. It doesn’t matter.

There is no way to assure the decision you are going to make will be any good for you. Why? Because you cannot truly foresee its benefits, costs and consequences. And in addition the evaluation depends on the context and the time frame. What you judge as bad now may turn out to be considered as good later on. Hasn’t that happen to you yet?

The consequence of the above is far reaching. The challenge is not about making best or even good decisions. We cannot take this aspect into account. Instead, the challenge is to make effective§ decisions.

Effective decisions

Effective decisions lead us towards becoming who we aspire to be and doing the things we aspire to do. Effective decisions lead to a transformation either on the level of who we become or how we approach things in life, and ultimately what we have. These are consciously made decisions.

Effective decisions are intuitive and/or informative, fast and congruent.

Intuitive decisions integrate both emotion and rational thought in a creative way. They utilize knowledge yet they make use of the subjective evaluation of what matters in the moment. They are led by inspiration, insight or a high level perception.

Fast decisions do not necessarily mean decisions in a split of a second, but in a relatively short time. Fast decisions mean that they can be made in the presence of little information, partial information and/or uncertainty. We need information but only some as too much information inhibits decision making.

Congruent decisions mean that we are in alignment with them. This is crucial because decisions either inspire the beginning of a transformation or direct towards a change. And this requires action. When integrity is missing it will be hard for you to take action steps. A part of you who is unhappy with the decision will sabotage the action taking, optimal focus or the working towards the results. You may still rip some benefits, but often below what it could have been.

The effective guide to effective decision making

Set up a time limit and make a decision. Be it an hour, a day or a week, whatever it needs to be for the given case. Make it simple and fast. You will improve with practice.

  1. Rational thought: Use analysis, information and previous knowledge to learn about the situation. Enumerate the options.
  2. Emotional pruning: Trust the feeling of what feels s right, important or interesting to prune the tree of options. Stop at a few alternatives.
  3. Test the alternatives: Play the scenarios against your mental models, or simply visualize where the alternatives lead to. How the involvement feels. Be specific.
  4. Trust: Carefully observe how you respond to each scenario and make the final choice.

The points 1-4 above coincide with the intuitive decision making. There are two simple strategies that will help you develop trust and confidence in the final choice. These are placing yourself into a decision process and using the yes/no inner guiding system.

“Is it like me?” – integrating who you are into a decision process

The key understanding here is that decisions are creative outlets for self-expression. Decisions will inherently lead to a new experience or change, hence you may evaluate a decision by the perception of how you will fit or go with it. In the act of a similarity search or comparison, you will compare the thing with the ideal you, the you to become.

When you are considering a few options, you may ask yourself:

  • Is this bag / jacket /computer / TV set / car like me?
  • Is this job like me?
  • Is this house like me?
  • Is this country like me?
  • Are these colleagues like me?
  • Are these friends like me?
  • Is this meal like me?
  • Is this holiday like me?

This is something that you can feel or know. If you really don’t know how to answer such a question, use the tools below.

Tool #1: Make a list of five features describing the thing itself. How well will these adjective describe you?

  • Are you open, tolerant, individualistic, courageous and organized as the country you want to live in?
  • Are you slick, sophisticated, modern, compact, and well-rounded as the desk you are considering to buy?
  • Are you red-loving, detailed, spacious, elegant and classic like this bag?

Give yourself a minute or a few at most to make these evaluations. Mind becomes more creative in the time limit.

Tool #2: Consider your 5-10 personal values, such as intelligence, openness, honesty, friendship, individuality, humor, etc, whatever matters to you the most. Obviously you need some time to determine your values first. Ask yourself. Is the subject of your decision reflecting the values you appreciate the most?

  • Is this company (offering you a job) having similar values to the ones you have?
  • Is the neighborhood and the community around the house you consider supporting the values that are important to you?
  • Is this bag / jacket / computer / TV set helping you to develop the values that matter to you?

Find it out.

Yes/No guiding system

Another practical way to look at your decision option is to pay attention to the signals and subtle cues from the body. Your body will communicate with you how you  feel about each choice. If you are congruent with the decision then you will experience the positive ““Yes” in your body.  Otherwise, in case of mismatch, you will experience the “No”.

How do you tell the difference?

Stand up and think about something that you really dislike, such as spiders, cleaning the house or talking to strangers. Thinking about it should make you emotionally upset.

How do you know that you do NOT like it?

Answer these questions:

  • If you are seeing a scene in your mental eye, how does it look like? (Is it bright or dark, occupying the whole space, what are the shapes, etc)
  • If you are telling yourself about it or hearing it in your mental ear where does your voice originate from? Whose voice is it? (You at the age of 15, your boss etc)
  • What is your general feeling? (Tension, compression, gloom)
  • What is your posture? (How are your shoulders or feet positioned? Where is your head pointing to?)
  • Where is your gravity center? (Head, chest etc)
  • How do you breathe? (Short, shallow etc)
  • Where do you feel discomfort in your body? (Lungs, chest, stomach, shoulders)
  • What are the sensations you experience? (Goose bumps, butterflies in your stomach etc)

Just feel the sensations. Intensify them by thinking about even more horrible circumstances concerning the thing you dislike. Remember the sensations.

Breathe a few times in and out and then repeat the same for the Yes-guidance.

Stand up and imagine something that you really enjoy, e.g. drinking delicious smoothie, resting in a sun, playing volleyball, painting, etc

How do you know that you like it while you are thinking about it?

Answer these questions:

  • If you are seeing a scene in your mental eye, how does it look like?
  • If you are telling yourself about it or hearing it in your mental ear where does your voice originate from?
  • What is your general feeling? (Ease, expansion, joy)
  • What is your posture? (How are your shoulders positions, feet, where head is pointing etc)
  • Where is your gravity center? (Abdomen, tummy)
  • How do you breathe?  (Deep, long, etc)
  • How do you feel joy / comfort in in your body? (Sensations in the  lungs, chest, stomach, etc)
  • What are the sensations you experience? (Thrill of excitement, tickling in your stomach, open shoulders etc)

Be as detailed as possible.

In these Yes/No situations above, the image you see will usually be in a different place and differ in qualities, colors, use of light etc.  When you talk to yourself about a particular thing that you enjoy, this voice  will be different from the voice about the thing you dislike. You need to pay attention to tonality, speed or volume. Your perceptions and feelings will be different in both situations. Your posture will be different. And so on.

Notice the differences and remember them.

Next time pay attention to your body cues and you will know which decision to make.

The need for a change

You can use the guidance above to find out whether you are in agreement with yourself concerning the daily issues: house you live in, job you have, clothes you wear etc. It is the first step to admit that some things around you are perhaps not like you. You may have overgrown them and you need a change.

Be honest and admit this to yourself. It is all right not to know what to do next yet or how to improve. When you admit the truth to yourself, you empower yourself to start searching. Explore actively and you will find out what to do.


It is possible that your decision will not be good. And this is all right because your goal is not to make optimal decisions. You cannot judge them beforehand.

Your goal is to make conscious and effective decisions that support you in your personal growth. If your future-Self is unhappy with the decision or its results, you can make a new decision by incorporating whay you have learned on the way. Since your decisions are fast, you gain extra time and a free mind to experiment and learn how to improve your decision making.  And with practice, you will master it.

Time is now.  Effective decisions are yours to live by.


§Note that there is a difference between efficiency and effectiveness.  Efficiency is to do things right, i.e. use the time well for doing the tasks. Effectiveness is to do the right things, i.e. things that matter and things that produce results. And it is a fundamental difference.


A series of posts on decision making


Photo courtesy Jamie Frith available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr.

The series of posts on decision making:


Successful people, professionals and experts are able to make reliable and good decisions. They usually do not enumerate all possible options and evaluate them against external criteria. They usually do not contemplate the variety of options either. They rely on their gut feelings but are not taken away by emotions.

Successful people are action orientated and for this they have to make the decisions fast. What is the key ingredient behind their success

It’s intuition.

Are you the one who freaks out when intuition comes into a play?

Don’t be so. Intuition is not as strange or mystical as you may think. It is truly a daily experience of many successful people, professionals or just plain guys as you and I. What you need is to learn how to make intuition work for you. It is both learnable and teachable process.

Rational decision making has its use when we know all options and are able to define a clear and simple criterion for the optimal choice.

Emotional decision making guides us towards the choices of what we like or emotionally identify with.

Intuitive decision making has the power to combine the best of the worlds, knowledge and feelings, yet thrive on new insights.

Let’s look at the image

When you look at an image, say a mountain scene above, you instantly perceive, interpret and understand what you observe. You do not consciously follow the process of seeing individual pixels one by one or separate blobs of colors in order to understand how they work together and how they optimize some hidden parameters to allow you see what you see.

You directly perceive the scene with its meaning: the mountains, the lake and and the sky. Perhaps you like it or perhaps you don’t. Maybe you feel the emotions from climbing the summit, the marvellous serenity of the mountains or the sense of wonder you experienced. You may sense the inner balance or  the vibration of silence. You may taste the salt on your lips…

Analogy and where it leads

Rational decision making is similar to going through individual pixels or their groups and deriving rules to understand the image. It is a bottom-up approach.

Emotional decision making is similar to paying attention to the feelings, noticing the colors, the atmosphere or the sharpness of edges. It is a top-down approach.

Intuitive decision making is similar to perceiving the image as a whole, with the insight of what it is, including the complexity of the colors and textures and emotions. It is a dance of the middle path.

Intuition emerges when you creatively blend rational thoughts and emotions together. It happens in a state of calmness in which you achieve a high level of perception – grasping of the whole picture. You maintain detachment from both emotions and analysis. You think your thoughts and you feel your emotions. You appreciate them, but you become an observer.

You stand in an empty space where you allow the streams of emotions and knowledge come to you for a powerful integration. And there is a spark from the conscious observer to make this powerful integration happen. In a moment. Intuition is your inner knowing.

In the rational approach you understand what you do as you can enumerate steps, procedures, or  rules. You work with analysis.

In the emotional approach you feel what to do. You work with feelings.

In the intuitive approach you grasp. You recognize. You see. You sense. You know. You work with insights.


Intuitive decision making is what true experts do. They recognize the patterns of the case, be it a disease, changing conditions on a road while driving, or the next move in a heart surgery, both typicality an anomalies. Thanks to the emotional input (what feels right) they know which patterns are influential and which can be discarded. Having a gut feeling for the possible answers, they will apply these to own mental models and determine the most effective outcome.

Intuition at work: the fast track

The fast track happens when you either have all the knowledge about the problem or you don’t have it but you don’t need it either. It feels instantaneous and it is faster than your ability to observe (the elements of) the process. It may come as inspiration, imagination or a flash of knowing or sudden understanding in the given moment. It is also called upon when there is a high risk or danger at stake.

The challenge is that our rational mind has a strong influence on us. Since the intuitive answer is fast, it usually comes first. If you begin to reason and justify an answer to yourself, it is likely an answer from your rational mind.

A calm state of a mind helps to notice insights, body cues, image flashes and so on.  If you sit with a straight spine and focus on abdominal breathing, especially breathing out (2-4x longer than breathing in), you will begin to experience the intuits coming.

Intuition at work: the slow track

Alternatively, you may need to work your intuition out. This happens when the decision requires an integration of partial knowledge and understanding which are not sufficiently processed by you yet. The latter is e.g. true when you think about a scientific phenomenon or look for a solution to a complex problem. Then intuition works by organizing your thoughts under a deep focus. The focus keeps you in an empty space of your mind and encourages fresh, unbiased thoughts.

So what happens is the following.

You are able to perceive the clues of a situation or a context, to feel the atmosphere around the issues involved, to internally observe subtle details without being able to make them explicit. You recognize the patterns but you cannot elaborate the criteria, the algorithm and the optimization process that aids you in doing that.

You simply either directly know or imagine which decision is to be made, or you collect the patterns and evaluate them against a few chosen mental models (derived from experience, analysis and understanding). The final decision is a high-level integration of your knowledge and understanding, and emotional input realized by your self-conscious observer.


In my opinion, intuitive decision making is superior to rational decision making. It integrates multi-modal approaches and multi-sense information.

Intuitive decision making relies on tacit knowledge and pattern recognition built by experience, perception, emotion and insight. It is not fault-free as it strongly relies on perceptual skills, personal experience and understanding. Consequently, different experts may make different decisions in the same circumstances. Nevertheless, there is a clear way how to improve: by gaining more experience and practice.

How to make effective decisions

Since the working of intuition depends on the quality of experience, it may lead to flaw decisions if you are new to a field. Say, good cooks will know which ingredients are going to go together well to bring the desired effect.  As a beginner, however, you have no idea how to mix the tastes. You may have no idea how thyme effects the taste of cucumber in a sour cream salad. Would it be a good combination, do you think? 😉

I believe (a few) procedures and rules are necessary for a beginner to start learning. I support rational decision making in the very beginning. Later, you need to learn how to work with intuition. I encourage you to switch to this approach when you have collected some experience.

You will become a professional.

A recipe for effective decisions:


  1. Internal focus and/or calmness
  2. Emotional  and rational detachment


  1. Recognition of cues and patterns; selection of a few essential ones  (knowledge integrated with emotion)
  2. Selection of a few alternatives (emotion integrated with knowledge)
  3. Evaluation of the considered alternatives improve the mental models (rational thought)
  4. Final solution by choosing the scenario which feels right (emotion)


Intuition is the missing link for making effective decisions. Why? Because your decisions include both rational and emotional components. They are fast, informative and based on the know-how of your experience.

If you are not convinced, start experimenting. You have nothing to lose and the whole world to gain. 🙂

Simply trust your inner knowing and see what happens.

You will rock.




  • Are you the one who despises intuition, or are you the one who respects it?
  • Are you the one who thinks intuition is a word coined to cover the criterion-free and otherwise arbitrary decisions?
  • Are you the one who neglects the power of intuition in favor of a rational thought? The thought can be explained in the end, right?
  • Or, on the contrary, are you the one who believes that intuition is a mystical revelation for a chosen few?

Nothing more wrong than any of the above.

Intuition is not more than you think it is. It is much more! Much, much more.

Let me explain.

Are you the one who dwells in analysis? If so, perhaps you don’t pay sufficient respect to intuition. Perhaps you think intuition is run by emotional triggers, or it is a woo-woo phenomenon of emotionally unbalanced people. While it is true that

  • intuition may lead you astray (when undeveloped), and
  • it does not follow a rational conclusion of a detailed analysis,

intuition offers a unique approach to a more effective and satisfying living. And this is good enough to start using it.

Intuition is available to you and me at any time. It is not a magical power offered to a few individuals. It is a skill of a conscious person.

Intuition is a point of inner knowing, your inner knowing that happens now, in this very moment. Intuition is a creative workshop, a meeting place in which your consciousness is an artist who creates a new insight by blending knowledge, perception and feelings. It  is a new phenomenon arising by a higher level combination of a rational thought and emotion. In an active process of knowing.

This intuitive act is about delivering something new, similarly as you create a new color, green, by mixing blue and yellow in proportion, or as hydrogen and oxygen molecules are connected to create water. Such combinations have qualities that are way beyond the qualities of the ingredients themselves.

Key understanding

Being more practical: the idea behind intuition is threefold.

  1. First, it is your powerful subconscious mind that is able to process an amazing amount of information and read your senses and emotions. All without you being able to describe it.
  2. Secondly, it heavily relies on the non-verbalized tacit knowledge. It is the know-how that is built by experience and your own understanding and models of these experiences.
  3. Thirdly, there is a conscious spark. Call it imagination, inspiration, God’s guidance or wisdom in a moment. It is the spark, the joyful observer in you that combines the tacit knowledge and emotion into an insight.

So, the key understanding is this. Intuition is largely about … pattern recognition.

Yes, indeed. Intuition relies on a sophisticated pattern recognition system thanks to which you are able to evaluate both external and internal cues, perceive non-verbalized unspoken information, recognize patterns, discriminate between typicalities and anomalies and draw a conclusion in an instant.

Consequently, your intuition is usually lame when you enter a new field or encounter a new idea. It develops with learning, experience and reflection. What is means is that intuition can be trained.  It is great news, isn’t it? Because you can take a conscious effort in developing it.

Developing intuition

As any pattern recognition system intuition can be trained by examples. These are events, learning points and experiences. What you need are examples of standard situations and examples of outliers, atypical cases or anomalies. And as explained in the posts about learning accurate concepts and generalization, you need many more outliers and atypical examples than the typical ones in order to refine your concepts well. Your exposure to a variety of cases, analyzed or experienced, forms your data. Your inner understanding and the building of mental models are your generalizations.

Hence, the richer and wilder the experience and the better the understanding, the greatest your intuition (can be). And the other way around. The poorer your experience, the worse your intuition.

In other words: intuition sucks when you have not laid your foundation well: the data of experiences and the learned generalizations from  your reflection. So, yes, intuition may lead you to poor choices in the beginning, but it greatly improves with experience. With training, it leads to effective and fast choices. And of a high quality.

Intuition heavily relies on spotting the patterns and an instantaneous evaluation of such internal and external cues. It communicates with you with a bodily emotion, such as the feeling of “this is right” or “this is to be done”. How you feel it in your body is your personal experience. You may simply know the answer or direction, imagine it, hear it or even sense it. You may have a gut feeling about it. You may feel expansion in your body or a feeling of congruence.

How do you recognize that the feeling comes from your intuition? You recognize it because it guides you toward knowing in a moment and being in integrity with yourself. There is no fear, no rush but a state of calmness in which you clearly see, sense or know what to choose. It takes practice to tell the difference between intuition and other contributions such as ego, rational mind or emotional mind.

The only way to learn is by following intuition (or what it seems as intuition), see the results and learn from feedback. You need to trust.

Experts rely on intuition

Experts collect and ensemble patterns to quickly make sense of what is happening. Note that these patterns are not facts, neither rules, nor procedures. They are constructs built from knowledge, abstract prototypes and intuits derived from all the experiences the experts have lived through and heard about.

Professionals in any field rely on intuition. While standard situations can usually be covered by a set of procedures and rules, any deviation from the typicality asks for much more. And this is an every day experience for all of us. What we learn from leaflets, protocols and books has to be evaluated and refined by experience. Oftentimes, there is a gap between theory (written knowledge) and practice. Practice and experience lead to the development of your personal inner knowing.

And this is what makes the difference between mediocre and passionate. Between average and professional. Between boring and interesting. It is the use of intuition. As simple as that.

The learning point

In summary, what you need to understand is that an intuitive act happens in a given moment. It draws from learned concepts, generalizations and experiences. It is where your rational thinking and detailed analysis serve their roles – to form the mental models. Once these models are formed, they provide a model base for an intuition to act. Perception, senses and the emotional feeling provide the ‘green’ light  for the direction to choose. This intuitive knowing is painted in a moment from learned experience, recognized patterns and your feeling and judgement about the situation.

The good news is this. Your intuition is fed by experience, reflection and understanding. The richer your experience in a given subject, the better your intuition can be. The more you apply it, the stronger it becomes.

In the chaos and floods of information, intuition is not merely a tool. It becomes a necessity for making informative decisions and living your life fully.

Don’t let it slip your attention.

Your intuition is at work. Train it. Test it. Master it.


The image above is by my friend David.


This is a follow-up for the post on rational decision making. And first, a boring but important bit:

“Most theories of choice assume that decisions derive from an assessment of the future outcomes of various options and alternatives through some type of cost-benefit analyses. The influence of emotions on decision-making is largely ignored. The studies of decision-making in neurological patients who can no longer process emotional information normally suggest that people make judgments not only by evaluating the consequences and their probability of occurring, but also and even sometimes primarily at a gut or emotional level.”

From the Abstract of “The role of emotion in decision-making: Evidence from neurological patients with orbitofrontal damage” by Antoine Bechara, Brain and Cognition 55, 30-40, 2004.

I want a meal

Just imagine you go to a restaurant. It turns out to be a lovely restaurant, much nicer than you have expected.

There is a classy look and feel to the place. You enter … and you are exposed to distinct but subtle smells. You like it there. You like the modern design and the combination of colors: red, orange, brown and black. The place welcomes you. It feels perfect to sit down, relax and celebrate life with a meal.

Looking at a menu, you find a number of appealing choices. What to choose? Would you eat beef or chicken today? Hmm…. What about crunchy salad or delicious pasta, instead?

But … wait.

Shouldn’t you be rational about your choices?  Of course, you should.

Please take a piece of paper and make a list of important features characterizing the meals. Let’s look at the estimated protein content, estimated fat content, estimated carbs content,  calories count, minerals and vitamins and many more. Let’s analyze what you have eaten so far, this morning, this day, this week. This month? Let’s incorporate this knowledge to the feature list. And let’s work on the weighting scheme of the features. Anything missing? Take your time…

Done? O.K. Let’s now consider a meal representative for every meat / veg option. Since it’s an evening meal we want to optimize the protein content and minimize the carbs content. But we also want to have a tasty meal. How to optimize this?

I personally don’t know and I stop here.

In fact, I even don’t start such an analysis. I choose the minimalist’s approach of following my gut. Straight and simple. What about  you?

Is it possible to follow any rational analysis concerning what your body needs at this very moment? Perhaps it is, when you limit your choices.  But in general, you will either ask the waiter for a recommendation, choose the cook’s meal of the day or decide what you feel like eating, will you not?

The importance of emotions

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has been doing an interesting research. He studied people with the brain damage who lost the ability of feeling emotions. What he found out was surprising to say at least. The decision making process has become seriously impaired for such people. Having a number of options available, they couldn’t decide what to eat or what to wear. There was simply no rationally defined cost-function to optimize between similar options. Lack of emotions set them in a deadlock, with no way out.

We learn from this that emotions are essential in decision making. Even more, Damasio proposes that emotions cannot be separated any longer from our reasoning. We may simply not recognize them in what we receive as a rational thought. Read the book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, where Damasio discusses how parts of the brain, related to perception of emotions, continually communicate with other parts of the body through electrical and chemical signals. The body is sending information to the brain and the brain is replying, or even initiating communication. And although thoughts and feelings are separate “information systems”, they continually talk to each other. It is our conscious self which discriminates where the emphasis lies.

See also a 3-min video of Damasio here

The heart – brain system

Damasio’s thesis is similar to the one discussed by David Servan-Schreiber, a clinical psychiatrist, about the heart-brain system, where guts and other organs reporting to the heart all together communicate with the brain. What he emphasizes is the heart coherence for our optimal functioning. Read his interesting book Healing without Freud or Prozac.

We feel feelings in the body in profound ways, such as butterflies in the stomach when we are stressed or physical lightness when we are happy. Emotions are grounded in the body. Hormones such as adrenaline creates feelings of anxiety, while oxytocin creates feelings of blissful love. Not only face expression, but also the whole body posture reflects the feelings. And the other way around,  by taking a specific posture and look we may evoke related feelings.

David Servan-Schreiber points to the early work of Andrew Armour and others that both heart and digestive system have their own networks of neurons which, although much smaller and more primitive than those of the brain, act as small brains with their own form of perception and reaction. It means that the heart (and gut) has its own intrinsic nervous system that operates and processes information independently of the brain or nervous system. As a result, both heart and guts are capable of acting independently of the brain – to learn, remember, and even sense.  How impressive is that!

Emotions are essential

Both Damasio and Servan-Schreiber explain how essential emotions are. Of course, there are different levels and degrees of you following them. Emotional decision making works by going towards the fulfilment of an emotional need. What you optimize is your perceived-to-be feeling of happiness, fulfilment or satisfaction. So, the preferred choice works towards such a goal. In the extreme case, however, emotional decision making is driven by our biological wiring for an instant gratification in some form.

As humans we are not good at planning and thinking long term. Instead, we live in a short frame of time. Uhm… we want this yummy cake and a mocha coffee. And we want them now. And the next day, the pattern repeats. And the next day as well. We want coffee and we want a cake. We may do it every day even though we rationally know that these choices contribute to a possibly devastating effect on our health some years from now. Most advertisements and sales pitches intelligently push the instant gratification button. And we are usually good at rationalizing such choices and explaining them to ourselves. We deserve our buy, don’t we?.

  • How many times did you buy something to only find out it was a miss later on?
  • How many times did you eat junk food to regret it later? Well, of course, you have to work on this important project and don’t have the time for cooking. Who does it, anyway, nowadays?
  • How many times did you sleep long instead of committing to morning exercises you wanted to? You simply did not feel like getting up so early this morning, right?

Following emotions … it’s a part of the story

I believe emotions are crucial in decision making. While rational analysis prepares the ground and enumerates possible options, emotions have the ability to simplify complex weighting of choices and calculations. They simply reduce and limit our reasoning, and thereby make reasoning possible. Or more effective.

However, I do not advocate to go with the emotional decision making per se unless you are experienced in handling your emotions. The danger is that we may allow ourselves to be totally driven by emotions and loosing ourselves. In such a situation we identify with currents of emotions and become the power station of feelings. Very intense. We forget our conscious self guarding us in the moment of now. This is what may happen in heated discussions, when people fall in love or when we emotionally identify with the idea we are going to defend with our lives. The rise of unleashed emotions leads to a flood.

The powerful integration

One-sided approaches miss a lot of information.  They are not the answer. What I like to see is to give respect to both contributions: rational analysis and emotions, maintaining a coherent balance. None of them individually equips you with the tools to make the most informative decisions.

Effective decision making simply has to address emotional and rational elements of our being. Both emotion and cognition/rational thought are separate but interacting systems, each with its unique intelligence.

What is their successful integration, do you think?

My answer is intuitive decision making. What is your answer?


Photo courtesy Fe Langdon, available under the Creative Commons license on Flickr


The series of posts on decision making


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