How We Make Decisions2
Switching to Autopilot
July 29, 2015
From the moment we are born: There is no easy way, so we learned how to learn.
Our brains slowly acquire more skills, knowledge, and other branches of experience, eventually planting us firmly against the winds that toppled our former selves.
The first system we discussed was concerned with the initial mystery, and resulting STRESS, of any new or challenging experience.
Once you have had enough exposures to a specific situation, you have gained valuable experience, as no two were likely completely identical. Much of the stress we experience at these times is related to our brains: Calculating new possibilities.
It works hard to understand new systems and rewires itself accordingly, called NEUROPLASTICITY.
Maybe another way of looking at STRESS, is the OPPORTUNITY to learn a new skill.
This means that over time, every skill we practice takes less effort. As we turn fresh knowledge into old habit, life becomes less stressful and the brain requires less energy.
The subtle or large differences that exist between similar experiences gives our memory banks increasing data to draw from.
Eventually, we are able to see an almost complete portrait of an idea or situation.
With this clarity, comes calm reflection.
One we are relaxed enough, the brain’s next system kicks in; concerning itself with understanding problems, finding solutions, and storing knowledge as efficiently as possible.
It does this much the same way your computer does it.
The term LEARNING is often understood as another word for MEMORY. It is true that everything we learn is stored as memory, to be retrieved at a later time. For the purposes of this article, however, I wish to separate these terms, to make it easier to appreciate the different ways we use memory to solve problems.
Your computer uses 2 kinds of memory: RAM, and Hard Disc space.
RAM is like that part of your brain that focuses on a specific task at hand. It is an ACTIVE type of memory, learning in Real-Time, and integrating information, as it understands the problem. It is likely most closely approximated by the term Working Memory.
This type of thinking is mediated by the PREFRONTAL CORTEX, the Executive Suites of the brain.
This area of the brain or computer, takes up a lot of energy, and can put a strain on the rest of the machine, especially if the system hasn’t been in sleep mode in a while.
This ACTIVE type of learning that the Prefrontal Cortex engages in is called EXPLICIT MEMORY. These are memories easily recalled: Episodes, lists, songs, or pictures in your mind.
The other type of memory we are talking about is concerned with things we have ALREADY learned.
This type of PASSIVE memory is analogous to the data stored on your hard drive. These types of memories are stored all over the cortex, especially the Temporal lobes.
Once you have mastered the situation, your skills are hardwired into your brain, as IMPLICIT or PROCEDURAL MEMORY.
At this level of mastery, the behaviour is so ingrained in our brains, we forget how we ever learned it in the first place.
All we know is this: We can now do it.
Just like Netflix and Smartphones, you can’t remember how you ever got along without them.
Because we can’t consciously recall the steps necessary to learn these skills, we often take them for granted. These hidden talents obviously include: Walking, talking, reading.
Are your really thinking about how to read this sentence, or are you just doing it?
Uoy oculd eevn raed a rcsamlbed pu sentcnee, uoy rae os godo ta tihs reidang stfuf.
So we go through life encountering things that are new EXPOSURES, creating stress.
Once the stress is HABITUATED, we turn off our AMYGDALA; then other areas of the brain not concerned with survival, can have a turn.
We next activate our Prefrontal Cortex to understand the problem, and define the decisions we have available.
As we conquer more and more situations, the solutions becomes hardwired into our cortex, and actions become more automatic.
Eventually the situation can be handled with minimal input from the bosses of the brain, and we can MULTITASK.
The brain does not always want to be in a highly active state: Solving problems, and fighting crime. It also wants to relax, chew brain candy, and rest on the laurels in its lobes.
Once the brain learns something, it can relax for the most part.
The most energy consuming part of the brain, the PREFRONTAL CORTEX, has distributed concepts and ideas, to more efficient, retrievable cortical file folders.
And soon, the things we once needed to concentrate on and actively exposed ourselves to, learning permutations and possibilities, become so routine, it’s runs in the background like wallpaper.
Stress, if it does not lead to systems crashes, is eventually conquered, tolerated, and may even become a habit. Look at exercise or math, for example.
The evolutionary advantage is this: Stress that is no longer stressful allow each one of us to more easily glide through our day; saving prefrontal-power for more challenging scenarios.
We can become so comfortable with this type of PROCEDURAL thinking, we can even go on ‘AUTOPILOT’ during these activities.
Our attention can wander, looking for more introspective problems.
There are many examples of ‘mastery’, switching us over to AUTOPILOT.
It is especially the case if there are other stressors, taking up HABITUAL space in our heads, making a lot of noise in the back seat.
Do you remember how nervous you felt, when you were first learning how to drive a car: Remember the signs, rules, which pedal was the BRAKE, which the GAS?
Life is a highway of learning opportunities, every minute spent practicing exposes your neural engines to avenues of safe decisions, behind the mind’s wheel.
At first, the individual steps of driving were like a confusing dashboard, and our Prefrontal Cortex used EXPLICIT MEMORY to rehearse the patterns of the road.
And with every repeated exposure, what was once a behaviour outside of you, that you merely observed in others, became part of your internal CAA.
Your driving ability and skill eventually improved to the point of MASTERY.
At this level, the brain requires little effort, and often moves on to other things. Remember when I discussed the concept of PASSIVE DECISIONS, earlier?
Many of us (including me), have become too distracted while driving, paying attention to entertaining things, that may not prolong life.
Sometimes we wonder how we ever got from Point A to Point B, in one piece.
This phenomenon, which occurs when repeated exposures no longer trigger a stress response, and may actually induce BOREDOM, is that HABITUATION thing I was talking about earlier.
The reason we look at Facebook or Email, behind the wheel, is because we are so competent at the skill of driving that our Prefrontal Cortex gets ‘bored’, and ‘wants something to do’.
It would be advantageous to become interested in the driving habits of others, or look for signs of kamikaze squirrel crossings.
Instead, however, we start to get curious about the weather report, or Twittersphere.
The downside of HABITUATION is that it can be seductive.
We think we are better at multitasking, than we actually are. We are actually neurologically incapable of doing 2 things at the same time.
And it has been proven to be less efficient, compared to doing one task at a time.
But there are ‘tasks’, and then there is operating several thousand pounds of high velocity metal on a narrow band of asphalt: And then covering your eyes, for about 10 seconds, every minute or so; sometimes near school crossings or busy intersections. Surrounded by others, doing the same.
At first we can, too successfully, watch 7 second Vines, with 3 lanes, or 4-way stops.
In essence, we are engaging both parts of our memory (Active-Explicit and Passive-Implicit-Procedural), or at least alternating between them.
The problem is, new information is always more fun than old,
Our Active Prefrontal Cortex inevitably starts to get more actively engaged, on a small screen instead of a windshield.
We were already barely paying attention to the mechanics and nuances of driving to begin with, since it is now stored in the PROCEDURAL section.
Social Media updates, and intense text battles, shift our focus past the event horizon of awareness, to critical levels of Passive ignorance.
It is one thing, to stare straight ahead, in a caffeine deficient state, or singing Ace of Base.
It is quite another, when the curious Executives of your brain, are clamoring to watch YouTube Action-Trailers, instead of Semi-Trailers, drifting over lines.
Now that we have learned more about how the brain shifts learned information into a different type of memory, we turn our attention to the specific activities of the PREFRONTAL CORTEX itself.
Think of this area, as your Brain’s Executive Suites, or the Boardroom of the Mind where the CEO type decisions are made.
Tune in for Part 3, The CEO’s Of The Brain.
Simon Trepel, MD
Simon Trepel, MD FRCPC, is a practicing Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, in Winnipeg, Canada. He is an Assistant Professor, at the University Of Manitoba, in the Faculty of Medicine, and the Co-founder of the GDAAY Clinic. He is, more importantly, the proud Father of 2 beautiful Daughters. He writes in his spare time about things he knows something about, and occasionally about things he doesn’t; like Yoga, and Italian flavored coffees. He was not referring to coffee that tastes like an Italian person.
Check out his Blog, called Simon Says Psych Stuff, at