What happens in our brain when we try to decide

It was Saturday morning and I was on my way to meet Caroline for brunch. It had been a while since I saw her and in order to express my apology for being such a ghost, and such a terrible friend, I told her I’d save her a trip on the bus and that I’d pick her up in my Suzuki; I wanted to provide the best door-to-door service. As we sat down at the table in Apertif in Bayside, Queens, the waiter arrived with our water, as well as.. *play dramatic music* our menus. I knew this feeling all too well. Oh, what it meant to be paralyzed by indecision. There I sat, intimidated by a list of food items, and the complimentary croissant that was placed on my side plate remained untouched.

“Should I get the flatboard or the sandwhich?,” I thought to myself. I wondered if it was possible to get mushrooms on the sandwich, instead of ordering the flatbread. “Then again, there’s brie on the sandwhich, would mushrooms go well with brie?,” I pondered hopelessly. I wanted to design my own sandwich and then I thought about what a nightmare of a customer I’d be. This wasn’t a deli. Dare I be so inconsiderate? My order didn’t require many changes (although please, no onions), decision making just pained me. I didn’t have the stomach for it nor enough time to weigh all the options. What was my belly in the mood for? I hate to say but I wasn’t sure.

This was where the work came in. The work I started five years ago. I had to talk myself into making a decision. I had to force myself. How much of my own life could I possibly miss due to this absurd anxiety? When the waiter arrived with our mimosas, Caroline and I said a toast. When he asked if I was ready, I had decided: “Two minutes.” (Intro by Cheyenne Burroughs)


Decision-making is a critical part of our lives. Without it, how would we function? How would we choose what to eat or what to wear? Let alone, what to do with our lives? For many, it’s the big decisions that are difficult to make. For some, it’s the small ones. And then there are those who have it the hardest: Those who are perplexed by both.

What happens in our brian when we experience this struggle? And yes, I know, the #thestruggleisreal. Why is it that some people become stifled, but not others? What exactly is it that keeps us from being decisive when life presents us with choices?

When people hear about decision making, they often think about rational and logical thought. This is most certainly a critical component of decision making, but psychology identifies another, very influential form of processing that comes into play when we make decisions: The emotional side of decision making. The side often goes unnoticed or unconsidered, which is a scary thought when realizing the potency it can have in just how we decide.

It is explained that emotions affect our decisions in a very rapid way. When we are in tune with our emotions, we are not processing much information. Think of this like your intuition or gut-feeling. This is a quick and initial reaction or response to something. This promotes quick decisions, yet does not consider many alternatives. This starkly contrasts the rational and logical reasoning that happens within the prefrontal cortex. Here, all possible outcomes are considered and the best decision is weighed amongst the others in a very objective and critical fashion. Despite these differences, it is critical that we execute a balanced approach to our decisions. A touch of emotion will keep us in line with our natural disposition while rational thought and reasoning will ensure quality decisions that keep us from harm.

After analyzing our personal views on our decision, we often compare these different scenarios and possibilities with how people around us will react as well as what behavior may be normally expected. Our social environment can greatly influence what we chose. But the question remains: Why is it so hard to make decisions? Psychology has a lot of different explanations for this phenomenon, but they all point to one underlying factor: Fear. The very fact that we don’t know the outcome of our choices is what keeps us from making them. It is the uncertainty and lack of clarity that clouds our decision-making capacities and renders them arguably useless. Even when choosing between that jelly donut left over from breakfast and the cauliflower salad your mom made you, there is always some level of fear involved.

Instead of being decisive, we think. This is a strategy we use to delay making a decision that we fear. We imagine all of the possible outcomes and scenarios that could be a result of each decision. This is a way in which we trick ourselves into believing we have more control, by analyzing imagined potential outcomes. Not only are we deluded but we’re delaying our decision-making, and we’re convinced that our supposed contemplation excuses our delay. We are under the false impression that we are still “in the process” of deciding when in truth we’ve walked into a black hole and we are lost; Lost in a cycle of thought.

But.. I’m happy to report that there is hope! Decision-making is a skill that we can better develop through discipline and consistency. For the purpose of sustainability and longevity, in order to cultivate the ability to make big and even small decisions, we must start somewhere. Make time in each day to be aware of how all aspects of your life come to be through the decisions you make. Pay attention to how your day unfolds. Acknowledge every time that your mind is able to come to a conclusive decision without overthinking or succumbing to fear. It is this ability that we want to nurture so that when we’re confronted with something we’re not certain of, we can make a choice that is void of regret or worry, and move along. While fear may be the thing that delays us, don’t let it stifle you; Try new things, seek alternative solutions. Remind yourself that most of the decisions we have to make aren’t life threatening. At the very least you will learn what not to do or what not chose next time. Even a mistake can be embedded with insight. Practice makes perfect and while I know decision making isn’t easy, you must continue to feel the pain of it if you ever hope to overcome it.

“Using the power of decision gives you the capacity to get past any excuse to change any and every part of your life in an instant.” -TONY ROBBINS

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