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The Brain As Experiential Simulator: How We Make Decisions & Choices, & How Stress Can Get In The Way

Perhaps the most obvious example of the mind-body connection (the idea that subjective experience is reflected in body physiology, and vice versa) is this: when we feel stressed or under pressure, we tighten up. Tightening up is not just a metaphor, our muscles literally tighten.

This seems such an obvious and straightforward notion that at first sight, it appears neither interesting nor worthwhile to consider in depth. But a more in-depth examination can reveal a lot about how the mind works and what emotions fundamentally are.

My aim in this article is to offer up these important insights in clear and practical ways, for therapists and coaches.

Neuroscience of Emotion & Feeling

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio developed a theory of how emotions work, which he called the somatic marker hypothesis. (I've found Damasio's work very helpful for my understanding of psycho-physiology in a very practical sense, and I'd recommend his books.)

The process starts with some emotionally salient trigger, e.g. someone pulls a knife and demands you hand over money. The limbic brain, and in particular the amygdala (well-known for triggering the fear response), detects this emotional significance and sends messages ultimately destined for the body, and relayed via (i) the hypothalamus (a key brain-body interface) and (ii) the autonomic nervous system, plus other pathways. The body responds to these messages: your heart races, you take a deeper breath, you start sweating, etc.

This part of the process Damasio refers to as emotion, while he reserves another word, feeling, for what follows, which is that the brain receives sensory (afferent) information from the body. Brain regions such as the insula and anterior cingulate monitor the state of the body, and when they detect changes this can be consciously experienced as feeling. Or maybe not – not every emotional response in the body makes it into conscious awareness. It depends how strong the change is, what else is going on, and how self-aware you are.

The Brain As Experiential Simulator

We all make use of this brain-body dialogue all the time – it's very fundamental to how the mind works.

Suppose you're asked if you'd like to give a presentation to senior management at work.

If you're the sort that gets anxious about public speaking, you almost certainly know the answer straight away.

What happens is that the mind takes a proposition such as this, and asks what would it feel like? The proposition plays through the brain's emotion-feeling loop – i.e. the body responds with physiological changes, which are then perceived by other brain regions and experienced as feeling. It's a real feeling, not a hypothetical one, albeit much weaker than a real roller-coaster ride.

Any proposition that pops into your head will trigger this what-would-it-feel-like simulation. It's automatic and non-volitional.

Decision-making

Most of our everyday decisions are made on the basis of this experiential simulation. It's much faster than logic and reason. It's a matter of whether you like the feeling that results. For example imagine choosing from a menu in a restaurant. You imagine how it would be to taste each option, then you pick the one you like the most.

Or maybe not – what if the thing you want most is full of sugar or calories? Even when you start to apply reason, feelings are still involved. Maybe the idea of putting on weight turns you away from the said item. Again, it's the feelings that these further thoughts engender that hold sway. In practice you're likely to change your decision to the extent that you feel bad about the idea of putting on weight.

Thought-feeling Loops

In my earlier article on how biofeedback complements CBT, I described the way that thoughts and feelings can feed off each other in an on-going loop, summed up in this diagram:

thoughts feelings connection

This thought-feeling chain reaction is an example of the playing out of the somatic marker theory in practice.

Stress & Anxiety

My earlier example of giving a presentation to the bosses is an example of a very common stress trigger - the feelings are typically experienced as anxiety.

Anxious people tend to be always on the look-out for danger. You can start to see how this entrenches anxiety. Each time the mind asks what-if-such-and-such-goes-wrong, an actual feeling of anxiety follows. You don't have to wait to find out what it would feel like, you get a real feeling here and now.

And of course this physiological state of anxiety reinforces the attentional pattern of looking out for danger, for things that can go wrong.

The Quicksand Trap Revisited

The quicksand trap is a metaphor for the mental dynamic of trying harder but making things worse.

Suppose the prospect of public speaking makes your heart pound, your throat tighten, and you break into a sweat. You experience this consciously as a feeling of anxiety, and you don't like it.

What happens next?

Instinctively, we want to turn away from feelings we don't like, even push them away or suppress them.

What I've noticed when I monitor my clients using biofeedback equipment in situations like these is that this desire to push away experience – which I call resistance – manifests as muscles tightening. (I wrote about this in an article on how we get tight.) It's a literal bracing against a threat, even when the “threat” is just a passing thought. Further, there is an activation of the sympathetic nervous system (which I can measure e.g. as increased sweating in the hands).

Resistance is one of the things that most reliably triggers a sympathetic nervous system response, or a “fight-or-flight” response. Let me really spell this out: our response to an unpleasant and unwanted feeling naturally amplifies that feeling. Resistance makes things worse. It's a chain reaction that only abates when we can find some acceptance and create some space and time to calm down.

Decision Paralysis

Chronically stressed or anxious clients often get completely stuck in thought-feeling loops and find it very difficult to make even simple decisions. What's going on here?

These clients are often (i) predisposed to think about all the things that might go wrong, and (ii) stuck in a state of “stressed” physiology anyway. The result is they feel bad a lot.

When it comes to decisions, if every option you think about triggers a bad feeling, how do you choose? Feelings of stress can swamp any positive feelings clients need to make a choice, and they end up frozen, or paralysed in an endless thought loop.

How To Help Clients Break Out Of Decision Paralysis

This decision paralysis is a kind of quicksand trap. Trying to think your way out of it, doesn't help and probably makes things worse.

I try to help my clients by saying something like this:

Recognise when you're in a thought-loop-quicksand-trap, and don't make it worse by putting yourself under more pressure. You have to put aside the decision for a time at least.

Instead take your time to relax. Find a way to move your physiology into a state of lower arousal. In terms of the Human Performance Curve, move to the left. Relax muscles, and shift into optimal breathing. Then from this stable, calm baseline, look to open up to positive emotions. Only when you're good and ready – that is to say, only when there is space for positive feelings to emerge – turn back to your decision.

Don't try to force things, but take each option and wait for a feeling to emerge. It's important to consider the positives of each option. If you only think about what might go wrong, or what the disadvantages are, you'll only get bad feelings in response.

If your options still all feel much the same, it may mean it doesn't really matter which you choose. In practice a lot of decisions are like this. It's a mistake to think there is always one right decision and you have to find what it is.

Of course this isn't easy for clients. There are several implicit mind-body skills, such as being able to relax muscles and shifting into optimal breathing. These take time to train and develop, ideally with the help of biofeedback.

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