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Get Out of Your Own Way

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By Virgil - Posted on 28 June 2008

Fishing in the stream of consciousness, researchers now can detect our intentions and predict our choices before we are aware of them ourselves. The brain, they have found, appears to make up its mind 10 seconds before we become conscious of a decision -- an eternity at the speed of thought. Their findings challenge conventional notions of choice."We think our decisions are conscious," said neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, who is pioneering this research. "But these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg. This doesn't rule out free will, but it does make it implausible."

Through a series of intriguing experiments, scientists in Germany, Norway and the U.S. have analyzed the distinctive cerebral activity that foreshadows our choices. They have tracked telltale waves of change through the cells that orchestrate our memory, language, reason and self-awareness.

In ways we are only beginning to understand, the synapses and neurons in the human nervous system work in concert to perceive the world around them, to learn from their perceptions, to remember important experiences, to plan ahead, and to decide and act on incomplete information. In a rudimentary way, they predetermine our choices.

To probe what happens in the brain during the moments before people sense they've reached a decision, Dr. Haynes and his colleagues devised a deceptively simple experiment, reported in April in Nature Neuroscience. They monitored the swift neural currents coursing through the brains of student volunteers as they decided, at their own pace and at random, whether to push a button with their left or right hands.

In all, they tested seven men and seven women from 21 to 30 years old. They recorded neural changes associated with thoughts using a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine and analyzed the results with an experimental pattern-recognition computer program.

While inside the brain scanner, the students watched random letters stream across a screen. Whenever they felt the urge, they pressed a button with their right hand or a button with their left hand. Then they marked down the letter that had been on the screen in the instant they had decided to press the button.

Studying the brain behavior leading up to the moment of conscious decision, the researchers identified signals that let them know when the students had decided to move 10 seconds or so before the students knew it themselves. About 70% of the time, the researchers could also predict which button the students would push.

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rfwitt's picture

So maybe the expression: "think before you act" is no longer valid.

extremestan's picture

The experiment seems utterly terrible.

I tell you the truth; if it were not so, I would have told you.

tom-g's picture

The professional baseball player they were analyzing had to have had a batting average of 0.000, he would be swinging at a pitch after the catcher had already thrown the ball back to the pitcher. I also hope none of these people had a driver's license, and it took them 10 seconds to apply their brakes after they saw the little child in the street.


mazuur's picture

I read this article somewhere else too. The 10 seconds is suppose to be 10 microseconds or something like that. Can't really remember, but I know it wasn't no 10 seconds. That's a long time.



judge's picture

That it gave an indictaion up to 10 seconds prior in this controlled environment would not mean that we would always see such a delay.

Driving a car is a very different context and stes up quite a different dynamic between our conscious and subconscious.

judge's picture

This sort of thing has been known about at least since the baffling work done by Benjamin Libet.

It seems, to me, to tie in perfectly with St Pauls ideas about the "flesh". Even before we know it, consciously, our flesh (including our brains) is pushing and pulling us this way and that. Reacting to this and that acording to habits and unconscious drives.

"Wake up thou that sleepest, and Christ will shine on you." ;-)

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