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Decisions, Decisions

The Curiosity Bureau is surfacing from another great week of workshops. We have come away inspired by the quality interaction and by the flow of ideas, both big and small. All week we have been working together with a team of Busaba Eathai and Naamyaa managers and senior staff at The Cube, a great collaborative space in East London. We were curious to explore what goes on in our brains when we make decisions.

So let’s slow down and take the process of thinking apart - what is going on in our heads? We started by examining how we see/feel/smell/taste the world around us and what we are thinking while we do that. The process of attending came up as very important to the quality of life. Attending is being present, concentrating and consciously focusing with all your senses on that key thing that you decide to give your attention to.

While talking about attending you cannot avoid the topic of those inevitable distractions. All those things that should stay in the background - conversations, smart phones, noises, thoughts, cravings, smells, to do lists, etc. – but are just waiting for that opportunity to draw our attention away.

But that’s just the way the brain works, constantly shifting from one thing to another. Although this doesn’t give you permission to just give up - staying focused is a skill that you can and should develop through time.

We moved on to consider our unique ability to think about our thinking while we are thinking. Our ability to attend can improve as we understand more about the process of our thinking. A first and very essential step is to be aware that your mind is shifting and understand when you’re being distracted. You can then make a choice not to be distracted or consciously draw yourself back to your key focus. Like one of the participant’s commented “It’s like a muscle you have to train”.

Attending is important for everything that is going on in our brains. The better you attend - the more you think about it and the more your brain can work on it. The more you attend - the better you understand and remember. And the more senses you use while attending the greater the potential quality of your understanding.

So the chain seems very simple attend – fight distractions – think - understand. But where do decisions come into this you might ask? Well good decisions require good understanding which is the outcome of good attending. But before closing the file on decision-making there is one truth we need to take on board - all of decisions are based on incomplete information. We never ever have all the data we need that is relevant to making a decisions but the brain doesn’t leave it at that and unconsciously it makes up for deficiencies from the store of knowledge that it has accumulated over the years. Call this our experience. Experience can be as diverse as similar situations we have been in before, sets of rules What do you think? regulations that we carry in our heads, and wisdom passed down from those we look up to. But in our workshop we came to conclusion that this accumulated experience can both help and hinder our decision-making. Knowing how our brains might complete the picture we are gathering to make our decision can help us to use appropriate information for the particular context we find ourselves in at the time.

But this left us with a sobering truth that our experience can be both a resource and a constraint in effective decision-making! Especially when we need to be inventive and new in the solutions we seek.

So there is a simple formula on which we base our decisions. It goes like this

Our decisions = What we ‘see’ + What we ‘carry’

‘What we see’ comes from our ability to attend, with all our senses and ‘What we carry’ comes from our experiences. Everything may look straightforward, but we have to be careful with the amount of interpretations our experience lead us into, because the less we attend the more we immerse in interpretations based on old information, which may be wrong or misplaced.

There were a lot of interesting questions and ideas raised in three days of the workshops. But the main ones people walked out with were:

  • The value of good attending and our awareness of what is happening in our brains

  • Experience can be both a blessing and curse

  • We cannot avoid making decisions based on incomplete information.

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