You're far less in control of your brain than you think, study finds

You've probably never given much thought to the fact that picking up your cup of morning coffee presents your brain with a set of complex decisions. You need to decide how to aim your hand, grasp the handle and raise the cup to your mouth, all without spilling the contents on your lap.

A new Northwestern University study shows that, not only does your brain handle such complex decisions for you, it also hides information from you about how those decisions are made.

"Our study gives a salient example," said Yangqing 'Lucie' Xu, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northwestern. "When you pick up an object, your brain automatically decides how to control your muscles based on what your eyes provide about the object's shape. When you pick up a mug by the handle with your right hand, you need to add a clockwise twist to your grip to compensate for the extra weight that you see on the left side of the mug.

"We showed that the use of this visual information is so powerful and automatic that we cannot turn it off. When people see an object weighted in one direction, they actually can't help but 'feel' the weight in that direction, even when they know that we're tricking them," Xu said.

The researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, people were asked to grasp a vertical stick with a weight hanging from its left or right side. People easily reported which side they felt the weight was on, even when they had their eyes closed.

The researchers then used a set of mirrors to occasionally flip the view of the object so that it looked like the weight was on the left, when actually it was on the right. And although people were told to report on which side they felt the weight (with their hands), the visual image strongly influenced the direction that they felt the weight was coming from, especially when the weights were lighter.

In the second experiment, the researchers tried harder to convince people to ignore the visual information by carefully explaining the nature of the "trick."

"People still could not ignore the visual information," said Xu. "In fact, the effect even works on us, and we designed the experiment!"

Steven Franconeri, co-author of the study and associate professor of cognitive psychology at Northwestern, said the brain is constantly making decisions for us that we don't know about or understand.

"These decisions are usually smart and based on vast experience," he said. "In this study's example, your brain is automatically using visual information to tell your hands what they are feeling. We can show that these decisions are happening by manipulating the information your brain receives—we mirror-reverse the and your brain now tells your hands that they are feeling the reverse of what they are actually feeling. This inference is mandatory—you feel it even if you know it's not true."

Franconeri said this is not a "bug" in the brain's operation.

"In the vast majority of cases, you want to 'delegate' decisions like this to the unconscious parts of your , leaving you free to focus on less straightforward problems, like following driving directions or enjoying your cup of coffee."

Explore further

The brain performs visual search near optimally

More information: "Visual Influence on Haptic Torque Perception" is published in the current issue of the journal Perception. See link for article: … rnal=P&issue=current
Citation: You're far less in control of your brain than you think, study finds (2012, September 28) retrieved 17 October 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Sep 28, 2012
Not sure who the "you" is in the title. I don't (as far as I know) exist separately from my brain so I can't imagine what it would mean to control it.

Sep 28, 2012
My brain disagrees with this story and say it isn't hiding anything from me.

And it doesn't like the Google Ad at the top of this story: "If you have a head injury we can help get your life back"

Sep 28, 2012
ParkerTard thinks that his brain is hiding nothing from him yet he has no clue to the order in which his arm muscles are stimulated and at what strength in order to lift a cup without spillage.

It is most probable that ParkerTard is even unaware of the existence of the various muscles involved in the process.

As usual, ParkerTard is amazingly ignorant about the extent of his vast ignorance.

"My brain disagrees with this story and say it isn't hiding anything from me." - ParkerTard

It is all part of his mental disease.

Sep 28, 2012
Isn't it interesting that Google knows about ParkerTard's mental disease?

"And it doesn't like the Google Ad at the top of this story: "If you have a head injury we can help get your life back" - ParkerTard

The ad for me is a reduced price on a subscription to the journal Science.

Sep 28, 2012
It seems to me that I've seen these same conclusions over the decades from "different" clinical studies around the world. Does anyone recall this PBS TV special back in the 1980's wherein the neuroscientists discussed how muscles "automatically" synchronize in reference to a Greg Louganis dive?

Sep 29, 2012
The classic example of this is learning to ride a bicycle, When you are learning to ride a bicycle you are making a program that automaticaly makes steering corrections while you ride and every time you get on a bicycle the program is accessed and runs in the background so can do other things like chew gum while riding.

Sep 29, 2012
If this experiment was run for an extended period, what would the results be? If the image was always flipped? If the image was randomly flipped?
I'm reminded of an experiment I read about years ago, where participants wore a headset which flipped up and down (as I recall). After a couple days of confusion, participant's brains rewired themselves. Then, when the headsets were removed, the same confusion for a few days.

Sep 29, 2012
I can't imagine that anyone actually thinks that they have conscious control over even a small part of their brains activities. Can you imagine what it would be like if you did have conscious access to all of that? Even if you could "watch" as it worked? The speed of it would be mind-blowing compared to the snail's pace of our conscious thought processes.

Sep 30, 2012
Your mind, whether you like it or not, is determined in its manifestations by the successive innovations throughout human history. http://thingumbob...-in.html

Sep 30, 2012
1. scientists create an experiment with a stick weighted on one side
2. subjects are asked to identify which side is weighted
3. with tactile and visual cues in agreement, subjects always answer correctly
4. scientists then place mirror between subject and stick to flip left/right
5. subjects ignore the tactile feedback and answer incorrectly based on visual information alone
6. scientists explain there is a visual trick going on, subjects still cannot reliably score
7. scientists burst into cruel laughter and taunt the subjects, who are holding weighted sticks
8. subjects attack scientists with weighted stick, smash mirrors and leave the building
9. experiment is concluded

Oct 04, 2012
@Mayday: it is possible to actively self-influence/control how your brain functions, as least in some aspects. Whether you are aware or not that this is what you are doing. One deliberate activity that comes to mind in this respect is meditation, the deliberate induction of certain mental states and along with this, brainwaves at particular frequencies, in combinations that are rare in the 'normal' waking state:
In tandem with the bicycle example given by Unknownorigin; we may not be able to know every single brainstep/event that gets us there, but that does not mean that we have no influence over 'bringing on' the relevant mechanism. Best Regards, DH66

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more