Judgment, problem-solving and decision-making are closely related activities that require a higher level of processing than, say, memory or attention, because they require you to invoke a group of brain processes simultaneously.
To do these things successfully, you need to create and maintain a space in working memory where you pull-up and examine memories of similar situations and evaluate them for their relevance and importance to the question at hand. Frequently, you must do this under time pressure (which invokes processing speed) and in the face of strong emotions which obstruct the entire process by narrowing your ability to think things through.
Decision-making tasks activate both the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex, both of which are early targets of the dementing process. It’s no wonder, then, that we start making errors of judgment about the same time our memory starts to fail us.
A few weeks ago, Sally brought some breakfast pastries home from a nearby French bakery. Upon their arrival, I ate half the cheese danish.
Later that evening, I was craving something sweet and reached for the other half. I paused, though, because it is our custom to split delicacies like this and I had already eaten my half.
Cue the decision-making process:
I knew this particular pastry was really good and I was not all that interested in the chocolate croissants she had also brought home. A vague ‘memory’ popped into my head that Sally didn’t really like cheese danish and preferred chocolate croissants.
“That’s what I’ll do!” I thought, “I’ll eat the rest of the danish and not have any of the croissants to make up for it.”
That, of course, was a bad decision, especially since Sally was sitting right there and all I had to do was ask her if I could have the other half of the danish. Somehow, I forgot to pull up the memory that says you let people decide for themselves instead of deciding for them.
A week later, I was making Sally a grilled cheese sandwich in the toaster oven. It was lightly browned on top which was exactly how she likes it, so I lowered the door and slid a spatula underneath one slice to remove it. Unfortunately, though, I only succeeded in sliding it to the back of the oven.
Using a potholder, I pulled the rack out a few inches and tried again. I got one slice out but then managed to push the other slice off the rack at the back of the appliance where it landed vertically on the heating element.
Smoke started to billow from the unit and I remembered thinking, “Oh lord, will it set off the smoke alarm? Will it blare throughout the building? Will the automatic sprinklers be triggered?”
I knew I had to act fast and decided that if I was really careful, I could reach in and pull it out, which is what I did. The melted cheese, though, was hotter than I anticipated, and my arm reflexively jerked as I was withdrawing it from the oven, tapping the hot metal for just an instant.
But an instant is all it took to singe my skin and leave a 1 inch burn on my forearm.
Once I had Sally’s sandwich safely removed to a serving plate, it dawned on me that there had been a pair of aluminum salad tongs in plain view, sitting in a crock not a foot away from where this all unfolded. How could I not have thought of using the tongs?
Hopefully, the burn has permanently seared that piece of learning into my brain for quick access next time.
As I write this, I’ve made another decision. This time, though, it was a deliberative process that unfolded across the span of a few weeks.
One day, Sally announced that she was going to get her hair cut short after having let it grow out during COVID. I joked that that meant I should get mine cut, too, for the same reason. But then I started to think seriously about it.
I recall making a decision when COVID hit between letting my hair go long or getting a buzz cut that I could maintain with my beard trimmer. It was a coin-toss decision then, but I decided, what-the-hell, Sally has never seen me with long hair and it might be fun to have a pony tail.
So that’s what I did. And although I liked the pony tail, I didn’t like the look when I ‘let my freak flag fly,’ which was exactly the look that Sally adored.
But when I look in the mirror with my hair flying in all directions, I didn’t see me. Add to that the shedding all over the apartment and the maintenance (I actually started to dread taking a shower because it took so long to shampoo and condition it), and the decision pretty much made itself.
So my hair comes off next week. We’ll use a longer attachment on my trimmer than I use for my beard and see how that works. It won’t take long at all for us to learn whether doing it that way instead of going to the barber was a good decision or not!