And why making them is hard
Decisions are the most important things in life. If you had to sum up your life in the most concise way possible, it would all be about the decisions that you have made. And yet, there is a fundamental problem with decisions... you can't make them.
The question of free will is an old one, but it seems that what our brains do, is pre-determined by the environment. So what we experience as free will is an illusion that our brains create to help us get along. An illusion that motivates us to survive. We are only free in the sense that we can't predict the exact output of the computations happening in our brain that lead to certain decisions. But that doesn't mean that you couldn't set up the input to a human brain in such a way that a certain decision is produced every single time.
What decisions are
A choice is nothing more than different neural networks in our brain, fighting with their electronic signals. They are trying to get control over the motor control circuits so that they can affect how the body moves.
For every decision, this is what happens. Multiple networks of neurons fire and they all try to get control over what we do. They try to inhibit each other, strengthen their friends and themselves and want to win control over the motor cortex. What we experience as a decision we have made is the result of that competition. In the end, one network wins over the others and then has control over the activity of the motor neurons for some time. This network is what determines what we do and feel for that time. It is ultimately what determines our decision. At each point where a decision is to be made, this fight happens again. With different sets of starting conditions based on our environment, our mood, and the current levels of activity of the networks in our brain. Our brains compute inputs together with their current states, to produce outputs -> decisions.
Something funny happens at that moment of a winning neural network as well. We start to think of the thing we are doing as if we have decided it "ourselves". We become conscious of our decision and feel like "we" have decided. Even though there was no "self", no "us" to be found anywhere within the competing neural networks. They are only neurons communicating with each other, trying to gain control of some other neurons nearby. The feeling of "us", of a self is very likely an illusion generated by some other neurons sitting on top, watching the activity in the rest of the brain. This kind of idea is discussed in much more detail in books such as From Bacteria to Bach and Back and Life 3.0.
So, if we think about decisions like that, how can it be that you, me, or anybody, can "learn" to make better decisions? What does learning in this context even mean? And where do those "better" decisions come from?
I find questions like this very puzzling. They have this self-referential nature, which is the whole topic of Gödel Escher Bach (one of the greatest books of all time, buy a copy and read it)
Anyways, self-reference is what makes differential equations and recursive algorithms, behave in such unique and interesting ways.
Networks of connected self-referential agents can create vast, un-interpretable, and unpredictable complexities, although they are governed by very simple facts and equations. And our brain is full of these self-referentially connected agents. We call them neurons. The book Complexity by Mitchell Waldrop explores these topics and their history at the Santa Fe Institute in quite some detail.
Awareness of our thoughts is only possible because neurons are listening to the activity of other neurons within the brain. And you can have those same neurons responsible for awareness listen to themselves. I would argue that that's what you do when you reflect or meditate.
There are circuits, which are controlling circuits, which themselves control the original circuits and so on, in nested loops, down to the very bottom. All of it is building up a unique and highly complex pattern, a pattern that makes you, you.
Outputs of those loops to the motor circuits are what decisions are in the end.
Decisions are the consequence of those recursive neural circuit processes. In the end, manifested as intricate patterns of movement and behavior. So... what exactly are we doing when we learn to make better decisions?
I think we are undergoing selective strengthening of only some of those recursive, competing circuits. This strengthening nudges the overall outcomes of the competition in a certain direction. That is what learning how to make better decisions is.
We try to only strengthen that neural circuitry, which enforces behavior, which is better for us in the long term.
This also describes what habits are. Namely, habits are a form of learning (neural strengthening) we can use to make better decisions. Since we know the idea of Hebbian learning: "What fires together, wires together", we can use this fact to strengthen the circuits responsible for specific actions only. And then we are more likely to do those again in the future. Especially, if the immediate consequences of that act had a positive effect. That's what building habits boils down to.
There is one problem with all of this, namely that we are not the only agent trying to gain control over our decisions. Essentially products also compete for our awareness and decision-making. Advertising and product design try to nudge our decisions in such ways that we "want" to buy more and end up consuming more. Because the companies that figure out how to do that effectively, win in a free market. This is "The Problem at the Heart of Capitalism".
Now comes the recursive, meta-decision part. In a way, when you read this text, neurons in your brain map the words into understanding and this text promises something that you want: the knowledge of how to make better decisions. And there are a lot of different things to decide between.
Therefore the next time you have a difficult decision to make, your brain has changed a little bit, and the networks within it, that correspond to long-term interest are just a little bit stronger, making the decision more likely to fall in your favor.
In a way, when you read a text like this, it is beneficial to you.
A text that tells you that long-term decisions are good for you, makes you more likely to engage in those long-term decisions. In a way, reading becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Especially if you start forming a conscious intention around the information you ingest. To me, a conscious intention (maybe you could call it "willpower" or "motivation") is a pre-strengthening of circuitry in your brain. If you can get the right circuits to pre-strengthen, it makes it easier to decide well.
So in the end, making good decisions is about preparation. Since you don't have free will, the only thing you can do is to be exposed to as much positive input to your brain as possible. Input, which only strengthens your neural networks responsible for solid, long-term-future-oriented choices. So that over time these circuits are winning the neural fight and get to control your motor circuits more often.
And then, that is when you will be able to live a good life. A life where you read more, learn more and become a better version of yourself, every day. Where you reflect and meditate and do great work because you have the brain to support those good choices.
Is that all though?
There are a few more questions that I think are not properly understood within this model of the brain.
First - when we decide on something "meta", like deciding about what decisions we want to make in the future... what has happened? When you form an intention to decide more in this or that way in the future... what has happened? And where did that "initial" thought come from in the first place? Can we trace it back to some childhood memory - of your parents giving you attention when making good choices and now that is why you crave more of it? And if so, isn't reading this or anything else automatic already, since you were bound to do something like it anyways, because of things outside of your control, because of your unchangeable past?
And second - when you do something that has not been done before, something creative, that you could have not seen anywhere else before, what did you do? How did you do it? What was that choice that you made and where did it come from? How can semi-random connections of semi-random brain cells lead to creative insights? And what triggers the creative insight in the first place? Who did the deciding? And maybe more importantly - what does that say about the answer to the question: Who are you? I mean really.
If I find any answers to these questions, that satisfy my curiosity, sound plausible and have solid explanatory power, I will write a post about them and link to it from here...
But until then. Enjoy your life, use this text as a neural stimulus to make your good intentions stronger. Maybe check out my /needlestack. And strengthen the neural networks that engage in the fight, over what you do every day. So that they are more aligned with what you want to do long-term. More aligned with your goals and ambitions. Then rinse and repeat.
Read more like this, learn, listen, understand and cultivate a character, that is more likely to do the right thing, no matter the circumstances. Because the mental circuitry is so hardened in its tracks that even in face of strong stimuli to the opposite, it can make the "right" choice and not do the stupid monkey thing. I think that is the long-term goal and journey of becoming a better version of yourself. The journey of building a character. A journey I am on and I hope that you are on too. If you are, good luck with it.