Researchers explore how information enters our brains

SF State researcher explores how information enters our brains
SF State University Associate Professor of Psychology Ezequiel Morsella designs an experiment on 'action sets.' Credit: San Francisco State University

Think you're totally in control of your thoughts? Maybe not as much as you think, according to a new San Francisco State University study that examines how thoughts that lead to actions enter our consciousness.

While we can "decide" to think about certain things, other information—including activities we have learned like counting—can enter our subconscious and cause us to think about something else, whether we want to or not. Psychologists call these dispositions "sets," explains SF State Associate Professor of Psychology Ezequiel Morsella, one of four authors on a new study that examines how sets influence what we end up thinking about.

Morsella and the other researchers conducted two experiments with SF State students. In the first experiment, 35 students were told beforehand to not count an array of objects presented to them. In 90 percent of the trials, students counted the objects involuntarily. In a second experiment, students were presented with differently colored geometric shapes and given the option of either naming the colors (one set) or counting the shapes (a different set). Even though students chose one over the other, around 40 percent about both sets.

"The data support the view that, when one is performing a desired action, conscious thoughts about alternative plans still occupy the mind, often insuppressibly," said Morsella.

Understanding how sets work could have implications for the way we absorb information—and whether we choose to act or not. We think of our conscious minds as private and insulated from the outside world, says Morsella. Yet our "insulation" may be more permeable than we think.

"Our is the totality of our experience, a kind of 'prime real estate' in the cognitive apparatus, influencing both decision-making and action," Morsella said.

The new study demonstrates that it's actually quite easy to activate sets in people and influence what occupies the brain's "prime ."

"The research shows that stimuli in the environment are very important in determining what we end up thinking about and that once an action plan is strongly activated its many effects can be difficult to override," said Morsella.

The study's findings support Morsella's passive frame theory, which posits that most thoughts enter our brains as a result of subliminal processes we don't totally control.

Explore further

Study finds our thoughts are susceptible to external influence even against our will

More information: Sabrina Bhangal et al, Involuntary Entry Into Consciousness From the Activation of Sets: Object Counting and Color Naming, Frontiers in Psychology (2018). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01017
Journal information: Frontiers in Psychology

Citation: Researchers explore how information enters our brains (2018, July 17) retrieved 18 September 2019 from
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Jul 17, 2018
Part 1: One of the problems of this another such studies (eg Libet) is that only the last conscious process is considered. Consciousness is part of a whole brain activity most of which is not directly conscious. Likewise, most of what the computer does is also not conscious or visible. If, for instance, we initiate a computer search and then scan the results it is obvious that this entire process is conscious, but if we start with the computer's search routine (not conscious) we note that the behaviour of the conscious process (the user) is directed by non-conscious (the computer search routine) processes.

Likewise with the brain. As this is a much slower processor we may not be aware of the earlier conscious input that resulted, after non-conscious processing, in the eventual conscious decision. We consciously initiate processes that must pass into non-conscious areas for processing and storage....

Jul 17, 2018
Part 2: ...When the results emerge from subconscious processing it appears as if the conscious decision is guided by non-conscious processes.

To add to the confusion there are non-conscious processes that guide behaviour in addition to the conscious ones. For instance we do not consciously solicit feelings of pain or pleasure or any of the other feelings and emotions that underpin conscious experience though some portion of these are influenced consciously.

Any conclusion that all conscious decisions are conscious or that all conscious decisions are non-conscious can confidently be dismissed as naively ignorant of the actual complexity of conscious thought processes. But one must also be very cautious of attributing to subconscious processes alone decisions subsequently made consciously just because the conscious initiation of those subconscious processes is not immediately in evidence.

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