Decision Making and Your Brain

At CPG CogBlog we are always interested in sharing thought-provoking articles and publications. Here is a brief summary of one of our favorite decision making articles by Kathi Beratan titled, “A Cognition-based View of Decision Processes in Complex Social-Ecological Systems”. Let us know your thoughts!

The concept of decision making extends far beyond the idea of selecting a specific course of action out of many.  Decision making is, in fact, an intricate cognitive process.  The fact that our brains are capable of both conscious and nonconscious thought aided by explicit and implicit memory is key to the decision making process.

Conscious versus Nonconscious Thought

Conscious thought utilizes explicit memory and is dependent upon recollection of past occurrences and/or experiences (Beratan, 2007).   An example of this would be trying to locate a lost set of keys.  One must actually stop and consciously contemplate where they may have gone.  Nonconscious thought, however, uses implicit memory which is based on the repetition of experiences in order for conceptual learning to occur (Beratan, 2007).  Consider the daily commute to work.  Many people simply drive to work while never stopping to contemplate the next directive step in their route as it is the nonconscious mind which guides them.  Both types of memory are stored by linkages of neural connections which have formed specific patterns.   Each pattern is then responsible for a different memory.  These patterned neural pathways are what allow us to make decisions.

Neural Process

Interestingly, 98%of our brain activity occurs in the absence of conscious thought (Beratan, 2007).  Therefore, the decision making process begins in the realm of “nonconsciousness” with one fully aware of a problem without being able to pinpoint from where the knowledge came.    In effect, the brain has processed, evaluated, and defined an array of information in order to formulate a problem by using patterned neural connections within implicit memory.  The brain will then present a decision based upon this neural patterning.    In fact, when asked how a certain decision was reached, the conscious mind must craft a logical explanation.  Yet, this process can be easily manipulated due to the prevalence of varying neural patterns formed after experiences.  For example, if the same problem is worded a certain way by one person and differently by another, one will most likely form differentiating conclusions when asked to make a decision about each.  This is because differentiating sensory input will trigger diverse neural patterns, thus presenting one with dissimilar nonconscious solutions.


However, when the brain has not formed neural patterns for a specific situation due to lack of past relevant experiences, the decision making process becomes evident within the conscious mind.  An example of this would be a corporate executive deciding between two different proposal bids from companies he knows nothing about.  His nonconscious mind will be unable to present him with a decision due to lack of experience-related neural patterning.  However, once the executive begins to research and learn about each company, his brain will begin to create associated linkages and will, therefore, be able to present him with a decision.

The Gift of the Nonconscious Mind

Decision making has long been considered a rational process in which several possibilities are consciously considered.  Yet this concept is limiting and does not allow for the greatness in cognitive capacity which humans possess.  The human unconscious mind holds an extraordinary ability to analyze, assess, and decide while guiding us through the complexities of life (Beratan 2007).

-Tegan Brown


Beratan, Kathi K. (2007.). A Cognition-based View of Decision Processes in Complex Social–Ecological Systems. Ecology and Society, 12(1).


About the Author:


Cognitive Performance Group, LLC is a woman-owned small business with offices in Orlando, Florida, and Cleveland, Ohio. It was founded by Dr. Karol G. Ross, Jennifer K. Phillips, and William A. Ross. The three CPG Principals developed the concept for a company to support cognitive performance improvement in industry and government. (more...)

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