Making up our minds

Half of the neocortex takes action superbly. You'll find it on the left side of your skull animating the right side of your body. This half focuses on what needs to be done regardless of it getting labeled as closed minded, over-zealous or obsessed. It processes information in a linear fashion which proves to be very effective for getting things done in a prescribed sequence -- free of distractions and discouragement. The way this half thinks is a one track mind that gets where it's going if at all possible.

The other half of our neocortex is great for deciding what action to take, what timing will work best, what changes to make in the sequence and how to have an intended effect on the situation. It is located on the right side of our craniums animating the left side of our bodies. This half takes in a panorama of possibilities and naturally considers long term consequences. It processes information in a non-linear fashion which works superbly for combining approaches, balancing opposing concerns, making tradeoffs and formulating creative alternatives. The way this half thinks is intuitive, inspired and imaginative.

The left half of the neocortex sucks at making decisions. It cannot get enough data while ignoring all signs of information overload. It has to reach a conclusion prematurely, short-sightedly and mistakenly because it's functioning linearly. It can only take things literally, as if there's no two ways about it and the decision depends on the objective facts. Thus it cannot ponder what-if questions, unforeseen possibilities or imaginative scenarios. It always comes to the same conclusion as before, which is a good thing when taking reliable actions, but ineffective when making innovative decisions. If there's too many considerations, the left half goes into a tail spin in isolation and cannot make up its mind.

We can tell which half of the neocortex we're using to make a decision by the emotional state of the limbic system. If we're happy and feeling confident, our right brains are doing what they're good at. If we're agitated, nervous and frustrated, we're poised to make bad decisions with the half designed for taking action.

When our minds are trying to make complex decisions with linear thinking, we need to call a time out to get the right half of the neocortex engaged. Closing our eyes disrupts relentless thinking. Listening to music, observing our surroundings or going for a walk -- each produce the desired effect of getting the right half into the act.

When we make a great decision, we won't know we've done that until we see how everything turns out in the end. We'll have an inkling that it's the right thing to do at the time because of how we are feeling abut the decision. We cannot explain how we made up our minds without sounding like we're spreading the B.S. pretty thick. We just know this is the right thing to do. We have a sixth sense about this. We know intuitively that it will work out for the best. We've used our right half to make up our mind so our left half can take action accordingly. All is well inside our craniums.


  1. This is a very idiosyncratic theory. Do you have any reference for this, so we can see where you got it from?

  2. Thanks for the question Stephen. The start of this theory for me was James G. March's "garbage can theory of decision making" (circa 1976). His research uncovered that most rationality was imposed after managerial decisions were made intuitively. The rational logic was used to justify the unexplainable process of reaching the decision. This was a departure from Herbert Simon's tribe in the early days of AI. They were hoping to model the decision making processes with heuristics and other flexible protocols that could be replicated by computers. March posed a greater threat to the many advocates of quantitative decision making and rational management procedures.

    Since then, there have been countless studies of flawed decisions, business failures, flight cockpit errors, inept military strategies etc, -- which all point to a lack of: creativity, mental fluidity, big picture thinking, questioning of assumptions and intuitive hunches. There's a pattern of too much convergence, task focus, playing by the rules, thinking inside the box, jumping to conclusions, colluding with others out of fear of getting ostracized, etc.

    The comparisons between linear/non-linear, focused/panoramic, dichotomous/paradoxical have been around for years in the left/right brain studies. As I read John Medina's Brain Rules this month, he brought all that back to my mind. Medina posits that our evolutionary survival and superiority comes from this ability to challenge the evidence with the right side and then take action without question with our left hemisphere.

    The positive limbic reaction to right brain functioning (and anxiety eruption when misusing the left brain) is a pattern I've been seeing in Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence writings, Jill Bolte Taylor's insights following her left brain stroke, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's studies of the Flow state, and Carol Dweck's research on fixed vs. growth mindsets.

    I've taught creative problem solving many times and contrasted fear-based thinking with creative thought processes. I've been irresponsibly demonizing the left brain for not being creative. What I realized today, as I continue to reflect on John Medina's book, was how the left brain thought processes need to be the way they are in order to take action, get the job done and do things in the right order. They're not flawed. The left brain is misused, misunderstood and missing out on a valuable collaboration with the right brain.

  3. Hi Tom,

    Two questions for you:

    1) I am left handed so does that mean my brain's sides are reversed? So when you refer to 'left' brain is this 'right' brain for me?
    2) Is it possible to encourage use of certain sides of the brain by undertaking specific activities with one side of your body. This could be an interesting insight for designing learning interventions.

    Thanks for you ongoing thought provoking material!


  4. Hi Chris
    You're very welcome!

    1. No, the left/right designation refers to locations in our skulls. There's no connection with dominant hand usage (or ambidextrous people would be in big trouble). I'm not aware of left handed people being more creative, compassionate, and non-judgmental than right handers, but people demonstrate those traits when functioning in their right hemispheres. That suggests that the control of motor functions by each hemisphere is separate from the cognitive differences between them.

    2. Stimulating right brain activity with physical movement is very appealing-- but I suspect the disconnect between motor activities and cognitive functioning rules that out. I just did a Google search about right brain stimulation and found this at,-Left-Brain&id=43531

    --- "Activities that stimulate the right brain are emotional issues, the creative process, recalling memorized lists, any unfamiliar event or activity, and holding the attention span. Seeing or feeling different sizes, seeing different colors, attention exercises involving timing, seeing unfamiliar faces, and meeting someone new also stimulate the right brain." ---

    Thanks for the questions, Chris!