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wundayatta's avatar

What does "choice" mean, if you aren't exactly aware that you are making choices?

Asked by wundayatta (58377 points ) February 1st, 2011

Some would say that we create our own lives with the choices we make every second of every day. Mostly, we are not conscious that we are making these choices; that in some ways, we are making our lives into what they are.

Most people experience themselves as being thrown around by what happens to them. They do not experience this as making choices.

But what if we all are making choices and we all do create our lives all the time? What would it mean that most of us are unaware of these choices? What if we are all blindly creating a universe with no plan or awareness? If we did become aware, would that make a difference? Would we create a different universe than the one we have, or do we like things pretty much as they are, even with all the things we hate?

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18 Answers

Earthgirl's avatar

I think people are more or less “self” conscious. If you are a person who thinks before they act you are more likely to feel as if your life is made up of choices and not feel like a piece of helpless driftwood thrown on the tides of life. I also think there is an element of luck. All those self help books about choosing your own destiny overlook some very real inequalities in parentage, economics, and genes governing intelligence and physical advantages such as stamina and disease resistance. I have always been a big believer in that saying “the life unexamined is not worth living.” You cannot sleepwalk through life. That is what existentialism is all about! You can either be in the cart letting the horse drag you around, or you can take the reins!!

Odysseus's avatar

‘Choice !’ in New Zealand is an exclamation of excellence, :)
but referring to your question(s) Yes we are continually making choices every second some scientists reckon that the decisions we make are not from free will but have already been made and are genetic choices that we don’t control.

You may also be interested in a branch of super-string theory called Everetts theory that states everything that can happen does happen.

jazmina88's avatar

Every day you consciously, or unsciously make so many decisions. Whether to get out of bed and go to work, and much more. The choice you make are your actions, feeling and philosophies.

Now I will choose what lights to leave on, how many pills I take, and if I go to bed now or not….

Earthgirl's avatar

How can you be “making a choice” if you are unaware of making it? That means you are just making a choice by defaulting to fate.

zenvelo's avatar

that’s what “being present” is all about. Not being conscious of the choices one makes throughout the day is to not be involved in one’s own life. Being present doesn’t mean you;ll make different decision, but they’ll be your active decisions, not simply bending to the path of least resistance.

Earthgirl's avatar

sometimes it’s ok to “go with the flow” and not obsess too much though. Don’t you think?

wundayatta's avatar

@Earthgirl How can you be “making a choice” if you are unaware of making it?

We make many actions where we are not consciously aware that we’ve made a choice. Yet we have made unconscious choices. There are also many actions where our will doesn’t seem to enter into it at all. Our autonomic systems do not seem to need any consciousness at all to keep on working. We can be in a coma for years and still be breathing. Heart still beats.

But yes—part of this question is about what making a “choice” means.

CaptainHarley's avatar

All of which makes a great argument for structuring your life along moral and ethica guidelines.

YARNLADY's avatar

Many people simply don’t realize they have the option. They have little or no concept of cause and effect. They hear “You make me mad” or “You’re driving me crazy.” or other similar comments and it never occurs to them that they can choose to be mad or not, they can choose to be upset or not.

Making conscious choices is something that has to be learned/taught.

Jeruba's avatar

When you decide what to do, when you take any action, you are making a choice. When you respond to something (or don’t), when you lay yourself open to something, when you follow or banish a thought or a feeling, you’re making choices. Even if things just seem to come at you, how you react to them is still a matter of choice. In Camus’s tale, Sisyphus understands this.

The fact that you don’t consider alternatives doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Becoming more aware isn’t so easy. It’s something you have to practice, but it can be learned.

noraasnave's avatar

Passive choices are powerful. Sleeping all day is a good example of this type of choice. I am not making a fully conscious choice, yet all other choices are kind of blocked by this passive choice. If I do this a few days in a row then I have really have lost a myriad of choices. In this way a harmless looking passive change can have a great impact on one’s future.

The feelings that follow this choice are worth noticing as well. Passive choices which block other choices seem to give us a feeling of apathy, which actually fits the passive choice to sleep all day. A self fulfilling prophecy cycle is born….one sleeps all day so one feels apathetic, one feels apathetic so one sleeps all day, and life…slips away.

thorninmud's avatar

Seeing choice-making as the work of a conscious agent is a vast over-simplification. It’s way more accurate to see it as an argument between the various organs of the brain, most of which happens at a subconscious level, with one of them eventually prevailing. Once that has happened, the story-writer function of the left hemisphere cranks out a story about how the conscious “I” made this or that choice, when in fact there was no “I” present when the actual choice was being made.

It’s kind of like a Supreme Court decision. One can speak of the Court as a unitary body and look at the final decision that it hands down. From that perspective the Court appears to be an agent. But as we know, the Court is not typically unitary at all; it’s a collection of competing points of view each trying to make the most compelling argument. One of the justices then gets to write what goes down in the record as the opinion of the Court, but “the Court”, as an entity, didn’t make the decision at all. It just lays claim to the prevailing opinion of the arguing factions.

The cast of characters engaged in the argument in the brain is more divers than the Court. In making even simple choices, like which cereal to buy, the first brain organ to engage is the nucleus accumbens, which is essentially the brain’s “wanting” organ. The nucleus accumbens, we should note, is not subject to our conscious control. It just pronounces its desires independently of any conscious thought process. Then the insula, as the brain’s voice of apprehension, will weigh in with the negative argument of possible painful consequences. The prefrontal cortex contributes the rational side of the argument, calculating what the available data would recommend.

A neurologist watching all of this activity on an fMRI imager can accurately predict the outcome of a simple decision like this by seeing which of these organs is the most active. If the insula shouts down the other organs, than is it “I” who decided that the risks of a course of action were just too great, or was it the insula? I can’t change my insula, so to what extent is it “me”? We tend to identify more with the voice of the prefrontal cortex, but why should that be? It’s very often not the dominant voice in the argument.

wundayatta's avatar

@thorninmud Those questions you wrote in your final paragraph are ones I wish I had asked. That’s what I’m getting at in this question. Do you, by any chance, have any answers for those questions? Or beginnings of answers?

Here’s another one—how would we go about identifying with the insula, or any of the other participants in the discussion that aren’t the prefrontal cortex? How do we bring their contributions more to our awareness? Is that even possible? Is that even advisable?

thorninmud's avatar

Our sense of self is intimately connected with our sense of control. It’s hard to identify with the processes of the body that we can’t consciously control. Oddly, my hand feels more like a part of “me” than does my heart, because it feels like my hand responds directly to my wishes, whereas the heart seems completely indifferent to my wishes (it’s kind of ironic then that the well-being of the self is more dependent on the continued functioning of the heart than of the hand).

Of course, it’s better that way. The aspects of the body’s operations that come under conscious control are really the least complex. The conscious processes are very easily overwhelmed, not surprising when you consider that they’re a very recent evolutionary development. The conscious self is kind of like a young kid that has just appeared in the cockpit of a sophisticated fighter jet. The jet has many complex systems under the control of an automated control system which, without the knowledge of the kid in the cockpit, makes millions of minor adjustments to keep things running smoothly. That background control system is even watching what the kid does with the stick and may override commands it sees as endangering the plane.

All the while, the kid is doing the really simple stuff, yet sees himself as being the one in charge. If he really had to control the whole process, the plane would crash in an instant. Our conscious self feels like it’s running the show, but is really only peripherally involved, making the coarser calls. It’s sense of importance is highly exaggerated. It needs to recognize and have faith in the inherent wisdom of the older processes that aren’t under its control.

wundayatta's avatar

It needs to recognize and have faith in the inherent wisdom of the older processes that aren’t under its control.

How do you do that?

thorninmud's avatar

The hard part is seeing past the illusion of control. We tend to resist this insight because it can be a scary thing.

It requires a great deal of attention to the actual functioning of the world. With unstinting attention, we occasionally see how things that we habitually think of as requiring our conscious participation actually unfold without the involvement of the conscious self at all. And I don’t mean just the autonomous bodily functions (though that’s certainly one aspect of it). You occasionally realize that the activity in which the body is involved is happening all by itself. “You”, in the sense of your conscious self, are completely irrelevant to what’s unfolding. In fact, to whatever extent the self tries to intervene in the process, things just get mucked up. The self takes credit for all kinds of things that it really has nothing to do with, but it takes attention—and a good measure of humility—to see this.

Jeruba's avatar

@thorninmud, what do you think of the way those themes and explanations are presented in Jonah Lehrer’s book How We Decide?

thorninmud's avatar

@Jeruba I read it last Spring when it first came out and thought he did a good job of summarizing the research in layman’s terms. I remember that he wrote about how, in choices involving personal gratification—choosing something like artwork or food—we tend to make much less satisfying choices when we engage the conscious thinking process. Lots of interesting anecdotes culled from various studies.

There’s a much more thorough exploration of the brain as a congress of competing voices in another recent book, “The Master and his Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist. It’s considerably heavier going than “How We Decide”, less glib and more authoritative. I’m still working my way through this one.

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