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If you have ever had to make a difficult decision, it can be a very uncomfortable process. Worrying about whether we will make the right choice can lead to considerable anxiety and headache.

Sometimes friends or family sensing your predicament may proffer advice such as “why don’t you sleep on it”.

It turns out this advice is actually spot on as far as the brain is concerned. Our decisions are actually subconscious processes, although we can invoke our conscious brain into the fray.

Scientists from Carnegie Mellon have discovered using neuroimaging, that those regions of our brain involved with decision making remain active even when we are using our conscious brain on something else completely unrelated.

In other words distracting ourselves in this instance helps our subconscious mind to resolve the issue, and this is especially helpful where it is a more complex decision needing to be made.

In the study, 27 healthy subjects were given information about four different types of cars while undergoing brain scans. Then, before being asked to make a decision about the information they had just learned, they were given a distracting task of memorising sequences of numbers. This meant they could not be consciously thinking about the other information they had just been given.

The main finding of the study was that in order to make better decisions, particularly a complex decision, undertaking a brief distracting task enhances the outcome.

The three main discoveries included:

1. That just a two-minute distraction period was sufficient in length to produce significantly better decisions.

2. The areas of brain activity involved in the learning process included the visual and prefrontal cortex: those areas known to be important to learning and decision-making. These areas continued to show activity during the period of time that the distraction task was being undertaken. So in other words the brain carried on with the sorting out the problem subconsciously. This supports the hypothesis that these areas are “reactivated” following the initial learning period rather than simply refreshing after a period of the brain having a break from looking at the information.

3. The amount of reactivity seen, correlated with the predicted degree of accuracy relating to the decision made.

So what do these findings imply?

That when faced with a tough decision, it is a really good idea to take yourself away from the problem and distract yourself by having a sleep or moving to a different task, in order to come to a better final decision.

We all have marvellous plastic brains capable of taking in new information and embedding new memory. In brain fitness we are encouraged to treat our brains like mental muscles, which need to be exercised regularly and in different ways in order to stimulate the brain’s natural plasticity and enhance new synaptic connections. This is how we build cognitive reserve.

This latest research supports the idea that if we do this and engage in a wide variety of different cognitive skills and learning new information, we help our brains to work better and become more effective problem solvers and decision makers.

It backs up the old saying of “Use it or lose it.” Where here, using our brains in multiple ways helps us to not lose anything.

And while multitasking is a no-no because it drains our mental energy and results in us taking longer to complete tasks and make more errors, switching between chosen multiple tasks is clearly not an issue.

Understanding more about how the brain undertakes complex decision-making is very helpful, particularly in our increasingly complex and fast paced world.

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Ref:  J. David Creswell, James K. Bursley and Ajay B. Satpute. Neural Reactivation Links Unconscious Thought to Decision Making Performance Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci first published online January 12, 2013 doi:10.1093/scan/nst004

Image: Carnegie Mellon University

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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