April 14, 2008
People Make Decisions Seconds Before They Know

You often make up your mind and then wait to find out what you decided.

Already several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain. This is shown in a study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, in collaboration with the Charité University Hospital and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin. The researchers from the group of Professor John-Dylan Haynes used a brain scanner to investigate what happens in the human brain just before a decision is made. "Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings." (Nature Neuroscience, April 13th 2008)

Do we just have the illusion of free will? Probably. Does our mind full the conscious part of the brain into believing it is in charge when it is not?

Imagine a computer that monitors your brain, detects a choice you want to make, and carries out your will before you consciously know what you decided.

In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. The aim of the experiment was to find out what happens in the brain in the period just before the person felt the decision was made. The researchers found that it was possible to predict from brain signals which option participants would take already seven seconds before they consciously made their decision. Normally researchers look at what happens when the decision is made, but not at what happens several seconds before. The fact that decisions can be predicted so long before they are made is a astonishing finding.

The ability to detect decision in advance would give fighter pilots a big advantage. Ditto for car drivers who need to avoid an accident.

Thanks to Jill (whoever she is) for the heads up.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 April 14 10:43 PM  Brain Performance

Ray Midge said at April 15, 2008 6:44 AM:

What I wonder is, why would we have evolved the "sensation of consciously deciding" when it would appear to be superfluous?

In fact, why would "consciousness" have sprung up at all if all the real work goes on in the blackness. Doesn't appear to be necessary for survival, procreation.

Innovation Catalyst said at April 15, 2008 7:46 AM:

Jung theorized that we have information gathering and decision making abilities in both conscious and subconscious. Perhaps the subconscious ability is based on our past experiences and connections between them.

Brock said at April 15, 2008 10:12 AM:

It's still "you" who is deciding; the conscious part of you simply isn't aware of the decision immediately. Conscious awareness only occurs in one part of the brain, but the rest of the brain does stuff too. Some decisions never penetrate conscious awareness of all, like the decicisons I am making regarding finger movements right now - I am not consciously aware of choosing one finger or another to hit a particular key on the keyboard; but it's still me (Brock) making the decision, not Randall or Engineer-Poet.

The "conversation" between conscious and unsconcious is a two-way street as well. There are a lot of books on this already, related to changing your habits and unconscious actions. Learning new skills (like touch typing) is also a way that the conscious choice to acquire the skill over-rides subconscious preferences.

Francis said at April 15, 2008 10:32 AM:

Come on already!! How long would one survive if there was a seven second delay between being confronted with a life threatening situation and the decision on how to respond.

Vincent said at April 15, 2008 11:31 AM:

Francis, the part of our brain called the amygdala takes care of those things by bypassing the conscious part of the brain and hijacking our motor system.

TClark said at April 15, 2008 2:06 PM:

I think this oversimplifies the decision-making process. It's clear that deciding between the left and right buttons, given no indication as to which is the preferable choice, seems to be undertaken by the subconscious. One might assert that the reason for this is that the decision ranks as one of the following types of decisions:

1. Not complex enough to require lengthy weighing of options
2. Not of such immediate importance (such as a life-threatening situation) that "consulting" with the fully conscious mind would put one in jeopardy.

I'd like to see a study where the outcome controlled for these factors. A complex penalty-reward system may require more conscious engagement, and a simple "fight or flight, timing is critical to survival" type of scenario would elucidate this matter greatly.

Derek said at April 15, 2008 4:22 PM:

I have come to believe consciousness is a tool that we use to explain to and understand new ideas from other people.
We do many things we can't explain to others. Once we understand it on a consciousness level we can then teach it to someone else.

It's basically the upper layer of our system of communication. It has nothing to do with making decisions.

Adam Perrotta said at April 15, 2008 6:01 PM:

There are scholars who believe that consciousness is a fundamental aspect rather than an inconsequential epiphenomenon of brain activity. I do not understand why the materialist is so heavily favored. I cannot imagine how non-living organic matter can, no matter how complex the organization, generate consciousness.

Randall Parker said at April 15, 2008 9:03 PM:

Adam Perrotta,

Do you view the limits of your imagination as defining the limits of what is possible?

averros said at April 16, 2008 3:28 AM:

This is a pretty old observation, I'm surprised it is considered news.

As for pilots, tennis players, etc, - they already do things before they consciously decide to do them. It takes about 400 neuron-to-neuron delays from a tennis ball seen emerging from a ball tossing machine until the start of appropriate motion by a proficient tennis player towards intercepting the ball. It is far too fast for any conscious decision to be made.

Brett Bellmore said at April 16, 2008 4:19 AM:

Remember, we have a long, and by definition, successful, evolutionary history behind us, and for most of it we were NOT intelligent, and probably only minimally conscious. The brain that got us through that history is still there, handling the tasks it's well suited for, with the intelligent mind a recent addition whose contribution is to handle the situations the preconscious mind isn't suited for.

Rote actions and quick response are the province of the pre-conscious mind. You shouldn't expect to be aware of how they're handled before the fact, any more than you'd expect to consciously decide to blink when something is thrown at your eyes.

Your province, the province of the conscious mind, is the new situations for which there is no pre-formulated response, and for which there is plenty of time for you to formulate that response.

It's not like this whole system was designed de novo as an intelligent being. It's a kludge. Don't expect it to all hang together as a united whole.

Randall Parker said at April 16, 2008 6:35 PM:

I agree with Brett Bellmore: our minds are a kludge.

beowulf said at April 18, 2008 10:10 AM:

Anyone interested in this would do well to lay out 99 cents (OK plus 4 bucks P&H) to buy a used copy of "The Real, Real World of William C. Casey". Casey was a Columbia poli sci and sociology professor from the 30's to 50's who didn't publish much, the book was adapted from class notes by some former students a few years after his death 30 years ago. To quote from the dust jacket, "He showed how our systems of thought often misdirect us about our world-- and those deadly thought processes are just as widespread among leaders and laymen today ass they ever were".

His class appears to have been an odd combination of psychology, sociology, political science and "a little too much about banking". One of the few references I can find of him online is from an interview of M. King Hubbert (of Peak Oil fame):

"Doel: Were there any people at Columbia you particularly valued? That you did talk with?

Hubbert: Well, perhaps the one single individual in the faculty that I was most intimately associated with socially was a professor of political science by the name of William C. Casey. He had formerly been a professor at Chicago before he came to Columbia. Then he'd been in a college down in central Illinois. In fact he'd been thrown out of the place because he taught the students a little too much about banking. The chairman of the board of trustees was president of the local bank. So they fired him. He went to Chicago and then to Columbia.

And so the man with whom I was the most intimately associated at Columbia was this professor of political science, sociology. He'd been in political science at Chicago.

# Doel: OK.

Hubbert: But he had a grasp of understanding of social phenomena that compared with which all the technical people at Columbia were neophytes. Or ignoramuses."

roberto g said at October 19, 2009 11:28 AM:

Remembering not what but how, I picture Casey mesmerizing us with what we called "Caseyology". He wove such a story of human foibles, though what he said has disappeared into my mindless void. I can only dredge up the last lecture as he stood before the applauding class bowing his head repeatedly; mopping his brow with a white handkerchief. A great and thoroughly loved actor.

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