Your Brain Knew It Would Click This Link Before You Did

A fascinating study published in Nature Neuroscience shows graphically that we make decisions before we are consciously aware of having made them.


(This schematic shows the brain regions (green)
from which the outcome of a participant's decision can be predicted
before it is made. Courtesy John-Dylan Haynes.)

The experiment was simple; hit the button with the left hand, or with the right? For up to seven seconds, the test subjects showed increased activity in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of sensory integration. Finally, the button was pushed. MRIs were used to measure brain activity; researchers were able to consistently predict which hand would be used to push the button.

"Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done," said study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a Max Planck Institute neuroscientist.

Although this is not a prediction, the situation is summed up neatly in the 2005 short story Second Person, Present Tense by Daryl Gregory. The story provides a fascinating examination of the problem of identity.

"They wired up patients and told them to lift one of their fingers, move it any time they wanted. Each time, the brain started the signal traveling toward the finger up to 120 milliseconds before the patient consciously decided to move it. Dr. S said you could see the brain warming up right before the patient consciously thought, now."

Read more details about how Brain Scanners Can See Your Decisions Before You Make Them; thanks to Conor for the tip on the article and the short story. Be sure to read Second Person, Present Tense by Daryl Gregory for yourself.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 4/16/2008)

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