The intricate pattern of the brain: decisions

When a baby sees a toy, recognizes it and realizes that it can have fun with it by making predictions on the basis of past experiences, its brain might trigger the body to move to the toy and play with it. How does this work? And what if the baby sees another toy along the way? It needs to make a choice between the two. How does the baby do that? In this article I want to explore an idea for the decision-making process for easy choices, like the choice between two toys, but also more complex choices, like buying a house. This article is part of a series of articles. As I have stated in the previous articles, I am not a neuroscientist, psychologist or sociologist, so take everything with a grain of salt. This article is not intended to be an in-depth discussion on the intricacies of human decision making, and instead is meant to give a general impression on how feelings can lead to decisions.

I would argue that humans can make four types of decisions. Firstly, they make genetic “decisions”, which we do not control. When there is some sort of threat to use, we “decide” to feel fear, and when something comes flying at us fast, we “decide” to move away and close our eyes. We have no control over these responses. Secondly, we can question, and subsequently determine, what some pattern is. Thirdly, we make yes-no decisions. We do this by weighing pros and cons of a certain choice. Lastly, we make comparisons and choose what we like best.

The question memory object

To facilitate this process, we humans have certain patterns in our heads which we use to solve dilemmas. This pattern is the question memory object (QMO). The QMO is made up out of “rules” that humans have set themselves to solve certain problems. These rules are different for everyone, as they are the result of people’s past experiences with decisions, and their results. These results led to certain emotional connections to the QMO and the memory objects that it is made up out of. If you, for instance, have rushed to conclusions in the past, you might have been confronted with the suboptimal results that that behavior might create. As a child, for instance, might have saved up your allowance to buy something that you thought was going to be really awesome, but then turned out to be a dud. Recognizing this pattern creates a memory object attached to anxiety. If, in the future, you would be confronted with something that looks really good, you recognize this pattern and feel a bit of anxiety of the time that you were duped. This blocks the thread towards action. Like this, you, and all humans, have build up a QMO in your head. It is a set of rules connected to the appropriate emotion, meant to steer the thread over the correct process, which itself is a pattern. The memory object of this pattern is therefore the QMO.

So, this is how I speculate the QMO functions. If you follow your own rules, you get pleasure, if you don’t, or cannot for some reason, you get anxiety, which will steer you away from certain action.

I want to speculate that there are at least three types of QMO’s. The first is the what-is-that QMO, the second is the yes-no QMO, and the third is the comparison QMO. But before I get into that, first I want to write about genetic responses, a fourth type of “decision”.

Genetic responses

If memory objects are connected to emotions and there would be no genetic emotional responses, then there would never be any emotions to remember. If the long term memory (LTM) starts empty, it can never trigger emotions only by itself. Therefore, I would argue, there must be genetic reasons as to why people feel emotions under certain conditions.

Humans also have certain physical responses to certain stimuli. For instance, when a newborn baby is confronted with a stimulus flashing in front of it, it has a genetic response to flinch. This is a reaction that is encoded in the DNA of the newborn. When the newborn gets older, it will not just flinch, but also run away from the threat. It feels anxiety that makes it want to run away. The bigger the threat, the faster and farther the person wants to run away. But there are other genetic responses. I want to list some of the ones that I think are probably genetic responses. It is not a limited list. There are probably more, but I won’t encounter them in my articles.

  • I think we have a genetic response to flinch and move away from stimuli that move quickly towards us.
  • I think we have a genetic response to focus on unexpected change in external stimuli.
  • I think we have a genetic response that gentle touch feels good and something hitting you fast will hurt. Our bodies are genetically programmed to act in a certain way when under these conditions, like moving towards or moving away.
  • I think we have a genetic response to get anxiety when we cannot breathe.
  • I think we have a genetic response of getting anxiety when we feel nauseous, or we get some other inner pain.
  • Our feelings of pleasure when eating and drinking is also genetic, I think, as is our displeasure when hungry or thirsty. Also, the body gives other signal to the brain in the form of pleasure or anxiety, like bowel or bladder movements, and other (pain) relief systems.
  • In the previous article, I speculated that the “acceptance threshold” of the memory objects that are needed to build up a bigger memory object, might be genetic.
  • If we can store a memory of a new pattern efficiently, we get pleasure. If we cannot succeed to find a pattern in that which we want to store in memory, we get frustration. I will speculate that this is genetic, even though it could be that discovering a new pattern in your environment simply means that there is less uncertainty in life. This realization alone could be tied to the ability of a person to acquire more food, shelter, and hugs, since the environment is more known, and therefore more safe, and will realization will then release pleasure. In this article, I am going to assume a genetic response.
  • Emotions diminish over time. The rate at which this happens might be genetic.
  • The amount of pleasure or anxiety we get from all of these is determined genetically, as is, I speculate, its influence on the thread.

I am going to speculate that most other emotional responses that occur in the body, if not all, are derivatives of the responses on this list. So, for instance, when you realize that you are alone and stuck somewhere, you get anxious. I would argue that this anxiety is the result of realizing that the chance to get hungry and thirsty is what is causing the “loneliness” anxiety. When a baby is alone for the first time, they might actually believe that they are going to die of hunger. This will attach anxiety to the loneliness memory object. When someone grows older, the hunger and thirst anxiety is not triggered anymore, and the loneliness memory object will have anxiety connected to it all on its own. This “loneliness” anxiety has therefore become a derivative of the hunger and thirst anxiety. So I would argue that most, if not all, other (emotional) responses are derivatives of the above-mentioned list.

I am going to speculate that curiosity is not a genetic response. It is the result of focusing on things that change in the stimuli that we experience. This can be both when something in our environment changes, and when our environment changes. Past experiences of noticing changes have given a positive emotional connection to the “curiosity memory object”, being the notion that you should check out something new. Therefore, if there is a new thing somewhere, these past memories of curiosity that led to positive outcomes will make the person in question curious. If someone has bad experiences with curiosity, they may become more hesitant. However, it could be that curiosity is somehow a genetic response. It could be that somehow when we are doing nothing, the brain sends a hormone cocktail that makes us explore. My idea will work either way.

So, these genetic responses are all “decisions” in some way. They make the body move in some predisposed way. But most decision that are made by humans are made by QMO’s.

The what-is-that QMO

The what-is-that QMO is the threshold of recognition that I speculated about in the previous article. If something is not understood, and might be important to us, we start to ask ourselves: what is that? There are simply not enough underlying memory objects that have been recognized in the external stimulus to ascertain what the pattern is that we try to understand. If there is a prediction of possible pleasure in some way, then we try to extract more memory objects from the external stimulus that we are confronted with. This way, we try to build up a better understanding of what we are looking at. At one point, and I speculate that this point is genetic, a person has unlocked enough memory objects to gain access to the higher memory object that represents the external stimulus. This, then, will make the observer understand what it is that they are observing. I would say that this is basically what the what-is-that QMO is.

The baby builds a what-is-that QMO

When a newborn is first confronted with external stimuli, it simply looks at things that have triggered certain genetic responses. It tries to understand by simply building up nodes and pathways in the LTM. But when some nodes and pathways have been formed, the baby can start to form a fundamental question: “What is that?”. The baby has not yet learned words, but it will get a feeling associated with the unknown object in the distance. I speculate that this feeling comes from past experiences with toys. Maybe the external object is also fun to play with?

Two things can now happen: the baby recognizes it, or the baby does not recognize it. Let’s start with the first.

The baby recognizes the external object

When a young baby sees a toy and recognizes it, I speculate it retrieves the feelings that are attached to the recognized memory objects. These emotional connections have been created by past experiences of fun with this or similar toys. These emotional connections open up memory objects to the thread that are necessary to steer the body towards the toy. So the pleasure felt because of the thread passing over the toy memory objects, and its association with the stimulating effects of certain neurons, make the baby start crawling towards the toy. When it reaches the toy, it starts to play with it. Old memories are retrieved even more, giving the baby pleasure while playing, and making it play on. But also new patterns are discovered by the baby, new ways to play with the toy, thereby releasing more pleasure (possibly genetically).

Then the baby’s eye falls on a different toy. It recognizes it, and remembers the pleasure of playing with it previously. The whole process starts again. The baby will forget about the first toy and move towards the second.

So, I speculate that the baby will at first not really make a decision. It will simply forget what it was previously doing and move towards the new stimulus.

When the baby recognizes an object that was scary, it will simply move away from it. The same for objects that have enough underlying recognized memory objects that are connected to anxiety to make the baby scared.

The baby does not recognize the external object

But what if the baby does not recognize the external object? I speculate that the baby tries to stare at the external object and tries to pass these stimuli over the small pattern of plasticity it has in its LTM. If it is not recognized, then the baby feels a bit of frustration. It has spent time and energy to try to recognize what this thing is, and it couldn’t find out. It wants to know, because predictions are made in the head, that it might be something fun. These predictions are the result of the thread passing over memory objects that the external object has in common with toys. For instance, the external object has a certain color or a certain shape or size. An object that a baby can hold will surely be interesting for it, since so much fun has been had with such objects, being toys of similar size.

So the baby moves towards the external object, in the hope (based on prediction) that it will be fun. If, along the way, the baby starts to recognize the external object, the recognition process that I have previously mentioned will just start. When it isn’t, the baby’s curiosity (created by past experiences of similar looking external objects with which the baby had fun) will make it explore the external object by holding it, biting into it, shaking it, and so on. This will give the baby an understanding of all the memory objects that make up the memory of the external object. It can now store this in the LTM. In the greater pattern, the baby attaches the memory objects that it discovered to the ones that it had already recognized. All of these memory objects get their emotional connections influenced by the emotions that were felt by the baby when it recognized these memory objects, which I would argue is a genetic response of pleasure, since a new, non-dangerous thing has been discovered.

The yes-no QMO

The yes-no QMO is a pattern humans use to decide if they should (metaphorically) move towards or away from a certain thing, or, in other words, if they like it or not. I want to speculate that it works by simply thinking of the pros and cons that a choice can have, and then use these feelings to either stimulate or block (metaphorically) moving towards a certain decision. It is basically a battle of the hormones, and biggest “army” wins. Below I will give an example of how I think this roughly could work.

Criteria and the decision diagram

Let’s say, someone wants to buy a house, and they have to make a shortlist. They look at houses on several websites and note the houses that they like, while ignoring the houses that they do not like. How do they do this?

When people plan buying a bigger house, they have certain predictions of what they are going to do in that new house. These predictions have been building up over the years, and are based on personal experience. They are therefore different for every person. These predictions can take all sorts of forms, like “my children need a safe place to play”, or, “my friends will be so jealous when they see this house”. These predictions, if deemed important enough by the brain, form the criteria of the decision. The criteria are going to dictate the end goal of the thread. The “battle of the hormones” is going to decide which option is the preferred one, and is going to lead to action.

Let’s say that our buyer simply wants a decent house that is not unnecessarily expensive to maintain, and where their future child can play safely, and they have a school in the neighborhood.

The buyer sees a house on a website. They see that they like the space in the house. This opens up predicted memory objects of future pleasure that can be acquired in this house. These memory objects have been build partly from own experiences visiting bigger houses, for instance as a house guest, but also, for instance, what they have seen in the media. Since these memory objects are connected to pleasure, action is taken, and the buyer continues to look for information. The buyer looks at the price. It is affordable. This they like! This “rush” of positivity makes the buyer look further and think more about the possibilities in this house.

Then the buyer sees that it is an old house. This opens up a past experience of big bills that were the result of an old house that needed a lot of upkeep. This opens up anxiety that weighs heavily on the thread. It closes the predictions that made it feel so good, but there is enough positivity to keep some of this thread open. Let’s look some more, the buyer thinks.

The buyer sees that the house is in a good neighborhood, and it has a school nearby. That is great, because the buyer is expecting a baby. The house is near a busy road, however. That could be dangerous for the child.

The pros and cons are in this way fighting a battle of the hormones. Which hormones get on top? It is a combination of stimulating and inhibitory workings that open up the thread to action. This can be represented in a diagram.

A decision diagram for someone buying a house. The green sections represent emotions in favor, and the red sections emotions against. The width of the section is determined by the amount of positivity or negativity that is released when thinking about that aspect. In the middle is the threshold. If one emotion gets the upper hand by passing the threshold, it wins.

The middle is the threshold. If this is passed, the decision is made. The section in green on the left represents the pros, and the red section represents the cons. The width of the sections is decided by the amount of positive or negative emotions they represent. Therefore, they also represent their stimulating or inhibitory ability to influence the thread.

In our case, the decision to add the house to the shortlist has been made. The pros outweighed the cons and action was taken. The house is added to a shortlist.

The comparison QMO

When humans compare things, I would argue that they try to explore all the options emotionally, and then pick the one that feels best. At first sight, this seems to be a simple process. Just think of the first option, explore it in your mind, look at it from all angles and then move on to the next option. In actuality, it seems to be a lot more complicated. The main problem is that when a human thinks of one option, what makes them go on to the next? If one option makes up the entire thread, then how are the other options remembered? The answer must be that the option being weighed does not make up the entire thread. It somehow keeps a stub understanding of the other options in mind. For this, I speculate, the brain uses the comparison QMO.

Build up of the comparison QMO

I will first give a quick overview of what the comparison QMO is and how it is used, then I will give a couple of examples to clarify what I mean, how I think this QMO was build up in the brain at a young age, and how an adult uses it.

First of all, when making a comparison, often there needs to be a shortlist. I would argue that therefore any good comparison QMO must also have the yes-no QMO as part of it.

For the rest, the QMO is made up out of “own” memory objects, which are the rules that humans set for themselves for every question, and the options that have to be weighed. By recognizing that the options are connected by being part of a question, the thread passes over these things at the same time, thereby strengthening their bond. So, the QMO’s own rules and the options get stronger synaptic plasticity between them. The QMO can then use these connected memory objects by weighing them one after the other, thereby gauging which one feels best.

The QMO uses these memory objects by being a complex, morphable memory object that can minimize the understanding of memory objects, so that it can concentrate on another. It can do this by causing the correct internally stimulated micro memories, and by increasing synaptic plasticity between the memory objects of the QMO. When the QMO lets the thread pass over one option to weigh it, it keeps a minimized understanding of the other options in the thread. We like to understand this as keeping it “in the back of our minds”. The memory objects that represent the inactive options are those that can help the thread open up the rest of the memory objects when told to do so by the QMO. This way, the newly active option can be weighed. The former active option now becomes minimized. The full emotional response of the second option can now be felt, and the continuation of the thread thereby influenced towards or away from the decision.

This ability of the QMO to steer the thread from one option to another is created by memory objects based on past experiences with making good and bad decisions. These past experiences give the thread a locking off ability by creating anxiety when the QMO is not followed. This will lock off all thinking outside of the realization that not following the QMO to its completion will have a high chance of failure.

So, the QMO is followed to its completion. All options are passed over and ordered. The order is stored in memory by letting the thread pass over this pattern a couple of times, reinforcing the plasticity while also feeling the emotions of success that the QMO has been followed to completion. We feel good about it. This feeling is what drives us forward. It will be associated with the ordered list, and we will feel confident enough to open up the memory objects towards action. The top option is chosen.

The QMO and emotional “override”

The QMO is guided by the emotional link its memory objects have had with past successes and failures. This is an emotional threshold that should not be passed by the emotions that are connected to one of the options. If one of the options has somehow very positive, stimulating connections to its memory objects, much bigger than the QMO can produce, they might “override” the QMO and action will be taken anyway, even though the QMO has not been followed. The result is the well known buyer’s remorse, when the QMO is not followed to its completion, and someone bought something on impulse.

The older baby’s QMO

An older baby is playing with a toy. Then its eye falls on another toy. This baby, however, recognizes this pattern. It has experienced this many times before. It chose an option, went to play with that toy, saw another toy, went to play with that toy, saw the first toy again, went to play with that toy and so on. The baby also has memories of switching toys and suddenly not being that happy anymore, for instance, because the second toy had become noticeably more boring than the first. These previous experiences make it that the baby realized it needs to make a choice. This realization is the foundation of the comparison QMO.

So the baby looks at the first toy and starts to make a prediction. At the age that it is at, it has enough plasticity in the LTM to be able to do this. The prediction gives the baby a certain feeling. Then it turns to the second object and it feels again. It can now gauge which of the two is going to be the most fun. This idea will therefore create the most dominant path, and will be chosen by the thread. This is the comparison QMO in one of its most rudimentary forms.

The way in which the baby must do this, is by looking at one toy, while also storing the understanding of the other toy in its thread. It cannot let go of this, or else it will forget. It needs to keep the other option in the back of its head. So the baby kind of thinks of both toys, but opens up mostly memory objects from one of the options. This is guided by the recognition of a higher memory object, the QMO. It is kind of a trick everyone learns without supervision. In our minds, we can combine a dinosaur with wings and call it a dragon. We have the power to combine all memory objects. We can also create two toys as one memory object, though separate from each other, and then focus on one and then the other. It is ultimately just another pattern that can be stored in the memory, and it is guided by the emotional responses from our past experiences with making choices, that have attached themselves to the QMO. Ultimately, we need to find the correct combination of micro memory and plasticity to connect these two in one memory object, the QMO.

The minimization process is possible because of our prediction capabilities. Stewie and Brian Griffin, whom I mentioned in the previous article, are not lines with colors inside them that can move. They are a toddler and a dog. Not all memory objects have to have been recognized to recognize the overall memory object. It is the same with the QMO. If enough underlying memory objects are part of the thread, the thread has the capability to open up the rest if necessary.

I want to speculate that all decisions are the result of stacked variations of this weighing two options at a time, as we will see in the next example of the adult’s QMO.

The Adult’s QMO

An adult wants to buy a new house. They have many options. There are many houses to choose from, all with their own pros and cons. Simply looking at one and then looking at the other is just not enough. The adult needs a broader strategy than that. This strategy is inherently what the adult’s QMO is. So what could this strategy be?

The best option seems to be to make a shortlist.As I have written above, a shortlist is made using the yes-no QMO. The houses that pass the criteria now have to be compared. But how are they compared?

The weighing of multiple options

The adult buying a house now has a shortlist. All that is left to do is to order the list. I speculate that they do this by using the yes-no QMO to compare the options on the shortlist two by two. The older baby simply thought of one thing, and then felt a certain way, and then thought of the other thing, and simply felt more or less pleasure. This would dictate where the older baby would go. An adult has developed a more sophisticated QMO.

I would argue that what an adult buying a house compares the options on the shortlist two by two. I want to speculate that the way this two by two comparison is done, is different for every human. We all have developed our own strategies to compare our feelings for two options. You could, for instance, start to focus on one specific criterion, and notice that one option opens up a lot of potential pleasure in the future. Opening up the memory object of the same criterion with a different option might open up less predicted pleasure. You open up the firs again, then the second again, and realize that you really like the first, and that accessing it, will make the thread travels more towards action. If this criterion has become dominant because of the amount of pleasure predicted by it, then this might be the end of the search, and that option might be chosen. Otherwise, other criteria will get a similar treatment. This process might be more robust with some than with others. Again, this depends on the past experiences of the brain with these types of choices. Making good decisions takes practice.

Looking at the pattern of the self, I think that the brain can compare two options by letting the thread first access the first option, and the amount of pleasure that is then felt decides how far the thread will go towards more positive predictions and, ultimately, action. The more pleasure, the “deeper” the predictions. If the brain then starts to think of the second option, it might, for instance, encounter anxiety sooner in the thread. This will block the thread, and might, for instance, now open the better feeling first option that was still minimized in the thread. The QMO will then force the thread over all criteria. After weighing all criteria like this, one option simply has more pleasure predicted, and the body will take action in that direction.

So, this is ultimately not so different from the baby and the two toys. One will be better than the other, and this is also stored in the thread. By comparing multiple options two by two, there now is a shortlist in order. A bid can be made on the house on the top of the shortlist.

In actuality, the decision to buy a house is more complex than this. It involves many times more pros and cons that have to be weighed, and more in depth analysis, but ultimately, I think that that will just be a more complex structure of these mechanisms. This will just result in a bigger QMO. If the QMO is too big to store in the thread, humans can use tools to aid it, like pen and paper, to write down options or pros and cons.

Residual emotions

Up until now, I have assumed that emotions are these walled off things that only work on the decision that triggered them. This is, however, not the case in the real world. In the real world, there are residual emotions.

When emotions are triggered by genetic responses, they flood the body and the brain with hormones. These hormones make you feel emotions that notify the brain that the release is successful, and that they are influencing the body. The hormones that go to the brain have an inhibitory or stimulating effect on the neurons, depending on what emotions are felt. These emotions therefore play an important part in decision-making, as I have speculated before. It is significant to note that these emotions linger. By that, I mean that If a certain event triggers a certain emotion, then even after the event, the emotions still stay and slowly diminish.

When the emotions and their effect on the brain slowly diminish, the brain starts to think about things not related to the event. These lingering emotions now distort these thought. So someone who would just barely decide to take a certain action, will now, because of these lingering emotions, choose not to do so. Of course, when the lingering emotions are gone, a new decision can be made under different emotions.

Emotional does not mean irrational

The way I described this make it sound like all humans are irrational and only driven by emotions. This is both true and false. It is true in that emotions are the driving force of our decision-making, but there are two reasons for why this answer is deceptive. Firstly, the emotions are accompanied by the stimulating or inhibitory effects in the brain. This will simply lead to action or inaction. There is no real choice, there is no free will. Secondly, the emotional ties to the corresponding memory objects are the result of empirical weighing on the basis of all past experiences in life. This includes, by the way, people who have seen and learned that the scientific method is very useful. They simply have a lot of positive emotional ties to QMO’s that involve this method. The only way to achieve this is by having a lot of exposure to the workings of the scientific method and its efficacy. The emotions felt are therefore directly tied to the weighing of past experiences. So “emotional bond” is not the same as irrational. Quite the contrary! The emotions could theoretically be representable numerically in the form of a threat and pleasure indicator. Our emotional bonds make us an empirical evidence weighing machine.

In conclusion

Decisions are made by a QMO. This QMO is a pattern that can be followed to turn all decisions in a series of choices between two, stacked together. The QMO is a learned memory object and can be both created without supervision and being trained. There are three types of QMO’s: the what-is-that QMO, that recognizes stimuli, the yes-no QMO, that weighs how much the brain likes the stimulus, and the comparison QMO, that compares multiple options to see which one it liked the most. Our genetic (emotional) responses are the foundation of all feelings, and therefore also all decisions.

Now please follow me to the next article about skills and intuition.