Throughout the course of our daily lives we are faced with an enormous amount of decision making. From the smaller decisions, like whether to hit snooze in the morning or get out of bed and get moving, to the tougher decisions, like deciding what the next step is in our careers, a tremendous amount can be explained about how we make these decisions simply by examining the habits we practice.
The human brain is a complex network of around 85 billion neurons (brain cells) that are vastly interconnected and elicit different feelings, thoughts, movements, and emotions based on a wide variety of intrinsic and extrinsic factors. There isn’t just ONE part of the brain that allows us to make the decisions that we do, but rather there are multiple competing networks of neurons each striving for a different goal or desire.
David Eagleman, author of The Brain: The Story of You, writes, “Each coalition (of brain cells) tries to gain the upper hand by intensifying its own activity and suppressing the other’s. The winning neuronal network defines what you do next.” Many of the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis are dependent on our subconscious, which is why decisions like getting out of bed in the morning are seemingly being done on autopilot.
Like many of us, the initial sound of the morning alarm sends me into a frantic delirium as my fingers scramble for the snooze button and my eyes struggle to open. What happens when we take a step back and consider these seemingly automatic decisions? How does one decide between sleeping five extra minutes and getting out of bed?
Let’s consider the moment after we hit snooze.
Part of us considers going back to sleep, another part considers getting up and starting our day. The part of our brain that “wins” this argument in the morning is largely based on the value or reward we associate with each outcome. When a conflict is presented, even one as simple as waking up or going back to sleep, our brains weigh the risks versus rewards without even noticing it. The part of our brain that says wake up and get moving associates the most value or reward with the relatively long term goals of being on time for work or having time for breakfast. On the other end of the spectrum is a vast network of neurons fighting for those five (or more) extra minutes of sleep, in which case the most value is placed on our short term desires.
As humans we are hard-wired to want to choose the second option, the option that will satisfy us in the now. We take in the intrinsic and extrinsic factors around us and try to compile all the data into deciding which option will prove to be the least amount of work for the greatest amount of reward – for a lot of us, that means hitting snooze.
So, this leads us to our most important question: how do you become a “morning person”?
The extensive networks of our brain are invariably changing with the decisions we make and the experiences we encounter on a daily basis. You’ve heard the phrase, “Practice makes perfect,” and, in this case, this is exactly our answer. Well, practice may not make perfect, but consistency in our decisions and our daily lives, like choosing to get up when your alarm goes off, can strengthen the connections between the neurons associated with waking up in the morning while those neural connections that go unused fade away. When we practice new skills they become physically hardwired, sinking below the level of consciousness and become written into the microstructure of the brain (Eagleman 2015). This is why many of these decisions seem to be made on auto-pilot.
Consciously making the decision to be UpByFive may not be easy at first, but with a little practice, you’ll be a pro in no time.
Courtney Turnbull is a Neurophysiologist originally from Columbus OH, currently based in Chicago IL. She is a graduate of Miami University.
Edited by Maggie Tarasovitch. Questions? Contact Maggie@UpByFive.com