Our brains reveal our choices before we're even aware of them, study finds

Our brains reveal our choices before we’re even aware of them, study finds
Researchers were able to see evidence of a choice being made before the participant had consciously decided on it. Credit: Shutterstock

A new UNSW study suggests we have less control over our personal choices than we think, and that unconscious brain activity determines our choices well before we are aware of them.

Published in Scientific Reports today, an experiment carried out in the Future Minds Lab at UNSW School of Psychology showed that free choices about what to think can be predicted from patterns of activity 11 seconds before people consciously chose what to think about.

The experiment consisted of asking people to freely choose between two of red and green stripes – one of them running horizontally, the other vertically – before consciously imagining them while being observed in a imaging (fMRI) machine.

The participants were also asked to rate how strongly they felt their visualisations of the patterns were after choosing them, again while researchers recorded their brain activity during the process.

Not only could the researchers predict which pattern they would choose, they could also predict how strongly the participants were to rate their visualisations. With the assistance of machine learning, the researchers were successful at making above-chance predictions of the participants' volitional choices at an average of 11 seconds before the thoughts became conscious.

The that revealed information about the future choices were located in executive areas of the brain – where our conscious decision-making is made – as well as visual and subcortical structures, suggesting an extended network of areas responsible for the birth of thoughts.

Lab director Professor Joel Pearson believes what could be happening in the brain is that we may have thoughts on 'standby' based on previous brain activity, which then influences the final decision without us being aware.

Our brains reveal our choices before we’re even aware of them, study finds
Participants were asked to choose one of these patterns and visualise it while an fMRI machine recorded their brain activity. Credit: Future Minds Lab
"We believe that when we are faced with the between two or more options of what to think about, non-conscious traces of the thoughts are there already, a bit like unconscious hallucinations," Professor Pearson says.

"As the decision of what to think about is made, executive areas of the brain choose the thought-trace which is stronger. In, other words, if any pre-existing brain activity matches one of your choices, then your brain will be more likely to pick that option as it gets boosted by the pre-existing brain activity.

"This would explain, for example, why thinking over and over about something leads to ever more thoughts about it, as it occurs in a positive feedback loop."

Interestingly, the subjective strength of the future thoughts was also dependent on activity housed in the early visual cortex, an area in the brain that receives from the outside world. The researchers say this suggests that the current state of activity in perceptual areas (which are believed to change randomly) has an influence in how strongly we think about things.

These results raise questions about our sense of volition for our own private and personal mental visual images. This study is the first to capture the origins and content of involuntary visual thoughts and how they might bias subsequent voluntary conscious imagery.

The insight gained with this experiment may also have implications for mental disorders involving intrusions that use mental imagery, such as PTSD, the authors say.

However, the researchers caution against assuming that all choices are by nature predetermined by pre-existing .

"Our results cannot guarantee that all choices are preceded by involuntary images, but it shows that this mechanism exists, and it potentially biases our everyday choices," Professor Pearson says.


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More information: Roger Koenig-Robert et al. Decoding the contents and strength of imagery before volitional engagement, Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-39813-y
Provided by University of New South Wales
Citation: Our brains reveal our choices before we're even aware of them, study finds (2019, March 6) retrieved 21 March 2019 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2019-03-brains-reveal-choices-aware.html
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Mar 06, 2019
It never ceases to amaze me how Cartesian Dualism and the rubbish notion of contra-causal freewill persists amongst scientists. Have they never done a philosophy course?

"A new UNSW study suggests we have less control over our personal choices than we think, and that unconscious brain activity determines our choices well before we are aware of them."

Can anyone explain to me how "I" am different from my brain?

Can anyone explain to me why brain activity being "unconscious" means that we are somehow not choosing our actions?

And is everyone aware that not only were Ben Libet's experiments heavily criticised within his own field at the time of publication, but that they have been thoroughly debunked in the meantime? (The only people still touting them tend to be physicists with a metaphysic axe to grind).

When oh when are we going to put Descarte to rest?

Mar 06, 2019
the unconscious mind prepares the various choices/movements and we choose between em, have these people never started to cross a road then had to stop the movement midway because they spotted a car
the old version of this experiment concluded that while we may not have free will, we definitely have free won't, the ability to put the hold on any action

Mar 06, 2019
Can anyone explain to me how "I" am different from my brain?


That's not the topic. I can certainly explain to you how your left hand is not your right hand, yet they're both part of "I." The brain's ability to provide a separate logical or physical processing center for immediate threat detection is an important survival mechanism. See tail lights? Brake, then make an executive decision on risk.

Can anyone explain to me why brain activity being "unconscious" means that we are somehow not choosing our actions?


The choices are determined long before the event, built as a collection of training and experience, and distilled into a fuzzy protocol.

Mar 06, 2019
Actually the original announcement is "Decoding the contents and strength of imagery before volitional engagement" in which with simple words they describe how they decode and see the content of the thoughts and their vividness that the brain is sending to us based on previous experiences. They successfully predicted their choices because we tend to choose what we think right? But the problem is that this experiment could go real bad real soon for the reason that the subjects could just simply pick the opposite, my brain is telling me to hit the red so i deside to hit the red because i follow my thoughts, im going to hit the red button and suddenly i hit the green. Where is the prediction? Now i dont know if we have free will or not and i dont think that this experiment can tell us for sure but as moranity said above we definitely have free won't.

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