Scientists see decisions before we are aware of them

Scientists see decisions before we are aware of them

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Scientists sometimes recognize decisions before people know them themselves, reports IFLScience, and reports: In one study, participants chose between two patterns, with the study leaders using images on functional magnetic resonance imaging to predict which one they would choose.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is an imaging technique that can display activated brain areas with high spatial resolution. We see which brain waves are active - decisions are made in front of consciousness through an unconscious “stand-by mode”.

Vertical or horizontal

Professor Joel Pearson of the University of New South Wales asked a group of volunteers to imagine either a pattern of horizontal or vertical colored lines. He chose these patterns because the orientation corresponds to vertical / horizontal specific reactions in the visual cortex.

Limited time

When the test subjects decided which pattern they would imagine, they pressed a button. They later pressed other buttons to indicate how strong the picture was in her head. Pearson verified the time of the decision to make sure that the participants did not simply delay the time before pressing the button. In the majority of cases, Pearson's team knew the outcome beforehand.

Up to 11 seconds beforehand

The samples were shown in the imaging process up to 11 seconds before the test subjects made a conscious decision. This indicates that the brains were predisposed to one orientation or another before the participants knew it themselves.

No free will?

Pearson criticized IFLScience, however, for media reports that shortened his study to show that there was no free will. He rejects that. The predisposition in the unconscious was in more than 50% of the cases consistent with the later conscious decision, but by no means always. If there were no free will, the agreement would have to be 100%.


Pearson, on the other hand, sees the result as proof of priming. He says, according to IFLScience: “When I say imagine a bank, you might be thinking of a place where you can deposit your money. But if I show you a picture with water beforehand, then you think of a “river bank”. Something similar would probably happen in his experiment, the fMRI shows this priming of patterns that formed certain brain regions.

Free will or not?

The question of whether there is free will concerns not only philosophers and priests, but also brain research. In 2008, John-Dylan Haynes and his team from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig came to the conclusion that the corresponding brain regions were already active before test subjects believed they were making a conscious decision. They were able to predict the result - but only in 60% of all cases.

How can decisions be recognized?

Appropriate decisions trigger metabolic processes in the brain. At that time, Haynes used an MRI scanner that showed which regions of the brain consumed how much oxygen. The active parts of the brain consume more oxygen.

What does Pearsons hope for from his study?

The research team was not concerned with proving whether there is free will or not. Rather, they hope that the results can help to better understand Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). People who are traumatized by this episode report a total loss of control, both in terms of strength and content of their inner imagination.

Images that cannot be stopped

Those affected are helplessly exposed to nightmares and, like in a continuous loop, they look for horror images, combined with the stress reaction of flight or fight, as soon as an objectively harmless trigger activates the image worlds that are linked to the traumatic event: when men get out of the car, it is War again

How could the findings help against PTSD?

With post-traumatic syndrome, the process between priming and conscious decisions is probably disturbed. The horror images that have been saved do not go through a filter in which they are adapted to the respective situation, but instead hit those affected with full force. The study may provide an approach to explore at which point this process tilts and how the priming on the images of the trauma can be changed. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

Video: Banned TEDTalk about Psychic Abilities. Russell Targ. (June 2022).