Where Does Confidence Come From?

I recently read this blog post from John Cookson of the Big Think blog about Brain Confidence: How Our Neurons Make Decisions.

It has a lot of juicy places to see how ordinary thinking about the brain as a tool for our consciousness and as a "wired" point to point system can mislead us.

Let's start by having you read the original post and/or watch their video. Then come back for my comments and to add yours!

Brain Confidence: How Our Neurons Make Decisions.

I had a whack of reactions as I read -- I'll share some of those as they relate to my key messages in the Way of the Brain and hope you will add your own.

The post starts (emphasis added):

"Confidence is a trait typically cast as a higher-order function in the brain. It’s at once the act of making a decision, recognizing the decision as thought, and measuring the degree to which that decision makes sense. An impartial judge it’s not, prophet even less, yet confidence surely requires self-awareness, a metacognition unmatched in the animal kingdom. Right?"

John goes on to share research suggesting this isn't so, but I have to go even further and say this is the furthest thing from confidence I could conceive.

To me, confidence is all about not having to think -- it's where all our patterns of response are compatible and in the same direction. It "feels right".

We can consciously extract some reasons why we think we're right, but those reasons come after the confidence, not before. (As does most awareness -- we have a lag time of almost 0.5 seconds before we know what we know!)

In fact, the more we engage our conscious awareness, the more we tend to interfere with what we already know (the more options we see, the more we try to weight all the possibilities, etc. etc.-- all the things that make us second-guess ourselves, for better or worse).

On the other hand, contrary to the intent of the research as John describes it, this means to me that confidence is not something that occurs at the level of a neuron. Neurons participate, as they do in most brain activity, but a feeling (note to self: it's a feeling of confidence, not a thought) isn't a one-neuron event, it is a pattern of activity, and patterns require networks to be working as wholes.

John gives an interesting description of another study: ..."before the decision was made about what the picture showed—a network of brain activity registered across the brain.  Yet, parts of the brain remained at lower-level activity until the very moment of recognition, at which point activity spiked and the regions lit up on the scans."


Because there is a wealth of other research suggesting that the decision *was* made during that earlier activity. It is the *awareness* of the decision that represents the activity spike at the end point. The awareness comes last. What they may well be tracking is not decision-making, but awareness of decisions made.

As John points out, confidence is something that happens across the brain, not in one area. Like people doing the wave -- individuals need to participate, but a few people doing it would not create the effect -- it takes the "system" of the crowd acting together at different, precisely timed intervals to create the pattern.

My own suggested take-away would be that to create or test our confidence, we might practice more non-linear ways of being aware that don't depend on "consciousness" per se (or letting go of having to be aware of everything all the time):

  • Recognize that we experience confidence first without conscious thinking. If we're thinking about a decision, it's a sign that either we're not Listening to the decision we already have or there is no clear "right answer" and our larger self has kicked up to our consciousness the need to consider and weigh options. So don't try for a Right Answer, try for a Workable or Working Answer
  • Practicing more connection with how we feel about something (physically, not just emotionally)
  • Testing an action and paying attention to how it feels, not to change it but to observe it -- keeping out of the way. 
    • Like one of my dissertation coachees who was wanting to quit -- when challenged to write and send me the email confirming she wanted to drop out of the coaching group and a draft for her advisor, she realized how horrible this felt and had a burst of renewed commitment to her decision to keep going.
  • Taking action as spontaenously as possible in many situations to get out of our own way. Our whole brain is working on it; it isn't waiting always waiting for us to figure it out.
    • Have you seen the movie Avatar? The main character talks about a program of training in which he learned to "trust his body" to know what to do and do it. We do the same thing as "develop confidence" in a sporting activity, dance, etc. And we do best at those when we think less and do more.

Can you think of other ways to let your whole-brain-body system work together? Of not just relaying on your conscious awareness to know what to do? Share please!