Our Brains Divulge Our Decisions Before We Even Know Them

Recent research explores how non-conscious activity precedes personal choice.

Posted Aug 03, 2020

We’d like to think that we are in charge of all of our own decisions. Each time that we make a choice in the busy moments of our day-to-day lives, we believe we’re calling all the shots. Similarly, we think that the never-ending stream of thoughts and images that scroll across the theater of our waking minds are of our own choosing.

But recent research conducted by Roger Koenig-Robert and Joel Pearson at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, predicted decisions being made as far as 11 seconds in advance of test subjects making a voluntary choice. The experimenters were able to do this by decoding neural patterns of activity in the frontal and visual areas of the brain of test participants by using functional magnetic resonance imagery.  

In the study, participants were tasked with freely choosing to imagine one of two distinct images—a red circular image with horizontal stripes or a green circular image with vertical stripes. The researchers were able to predict, in advance, the future content of test subjects’ mental imagery: specifically, which image they would choose to imagine. In addition, the experimenters were also able to predict how vivid these mental images were to test subjects, corroborated by participants’ self-reported ratings of image strength after they had completed the visualization task.

The study, published in the journal Nature, concluded: “The results suggest that the contents and strengths of mental imagery are influenced by sensory-like neural representations that emerge spontaneously before volition.” The researchers indicated that “the study can be seen as the first to capture the possible origins and contents of involuntary thoughts and how they progress into or bias subsequent voluntary imagery.”

Professor Joel Pearson, Director Future Minds Lab at the University of New South Wales, thinks that what might be taking place in the brain is that we may have thoughts that are on "standby" based upon prior neural activity. And those "standby" thoughts influence the final decision without our awareness. As Professor Pearson puts it in an article from Neuroscience News: “We believe that when we are faced with the choice between two or more options of what to think about, non-conscious traces of the thoughts are there already, a bit like unconscious hallucinations.”

These findings offer insights and raise questions not only about the mechanisms of how we decide but also about the automatic, involuntary nature of our personal private thoughts and mental imagery. This research may also lead to additional studies to better understand how to help those suffering from intrusive thoughts in mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, where sufferers seem to lack control of the content and strengths of their mental imagery.  

The researchers caution against concluding that all decisions are predetermined by prior neural activity. As Professor Pearson says in Neuroscience News, “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.”

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