As you probably know if you read my previous post, recently I have published a neuroscience book called Origin of the mind; From viruses to beliefs whose objective is to uncover the actual basis of behavior and what we traditionally call “mental activity”. In this post I continue to present some topics covered in the book.
Traditionally, both in psychology and common sense, decision making is considered as separate from action planning. However, recent neurophysiological studies suggest that potential action plans aimed at multiple targets, are simultaneously represented in multiple areas of the cortex responsible for motion control. Selecting one target – or “the decision” – involves the same cerebral mechanism as the one involved in action planning, the two of them functioning in an integrated manner. While making decision about actions, the signal related to the value of an action is encoded in cerebral regions involved in movement generation, thus suggesting that decision-making and action generation share a common level of neural organization. Therefore, voluntary actions are a form of decision-making. So we don’t speak here about a “superior” cognitive faculty but of the same basic function that control our movements. And the decision making style has a lot in common with our motor abilities like sports.
Other studies have extended these findings, indicating that decisions which dictate upon our actions are built in the neural circuits used by the brain for learning the value of actions. Any learning system needs to look up information in advance, and the better this task is performed, the more learning speed and accuracy increases. As a result, the brain developed mechanisms that process information even when this information is irrelevant for the ongoing behavior - the act of successful prediction involves an intrinsic motivational/rewarding role. The same neuronal system that reinforces behavior through reward or punishment, that aids the search of water or food supplies, also participates in decisions making processes underlying risky situations. In addition, this system teaches the brain to seek information in advance, thus selectively reinforcing the actions leading up to the information that unveil future rewards. These neuronal networks called “instrumental learning networks” underlie all the mental activities related to our actions, from planning and decision making, to attention/action monitoring and feedback processing. All these mental abilities analyzed as separate entities in psychology books, either as cognitive abilities or personality traits, are actually different aspects of the same generator in the brain, being manifestations of the learning process. As a consequence, inter-individual differences in terms of planning, decision making, action monitoring or feedback-related processing, should be investigated within the activity of these instrumental learning networks. And if you want to improve your decision making abilities you have only one chance to proceed: not to study books about decisions but to do things. Taking actions in various situations and involving various people train your decision making ability.
As I said above, we tend to see decision making as a separate, independent entity. But is not the case. And obviously is not the case when it comes to inter-individual differences in the decision making style. One example is impulsivity. Although impulsivity is presented in psychology as a unified concept, functionally speaking, it implies several different mechanisms. We can therefore argue that people can present several forms of impulsivity. Particularly, impulsivity can be divided into components that are related to: 1) “reflection impulsivity”, meaning behaviors inadequate to sensory stimuli; 2) “impulsive action”, namely, motor inhibition deficits; 3) “impulsive choice” or the tendency to accept small and immediate rewards in the detriment of large but uncertain rewards; 4) “sensation seeking”, entailing risky behaviors such as drug consumption or bungee jumping; 5) “compulsions”, meaning situation-inadequate actions that persist, are unrelated to set objectives and often attract negative consequences.
All these forms of impulsivity have distinct neuronal pathways in the brain, and distinct causes for their manifestation. And if we want to help somebody not to be impulsive first we have to identify what form/forms of “impulsivity” he’/she has and act upon it. For instance in the case of impulsive actions we have to learn how to control the initiation of a behavior (so a self-control over action) while in the case of impulsive choice we have to learn how to imagine/simulate alternative options and focused on them.