Unconscious decisions ~ who’s actually calling the shots?

Leona Dawson Uncategorized

I’d like to share a précis of an article published in the journal Nature Neuroscience about the nature of decision-making.

It seems our conscious mind is not as in charge of our choices and decisions as we’d like to think it is. Indeed, the conscious mind is more often busy creating a good reason for why we did what we did, chose what we chose LONG AFTER the unconscious mind has already decided.

Most of these decisions save us from mental and emotional overwhelm. After all we do not need to make every choice freshly each time. We simply wouldn’t get through our day. However there are some choices we make in our life that are long overdue for change. How we relate to others based on old beliefs. The patterns we run around eating, exercise, rest, self-care, spending or saving, what we say to ourselves when we want to try something new or make a mistake for example. Even patterns of pain from old injuries or chronic health concerns.


Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain.

Nature Neuroscience, April 13th, 2008.

By: Chun Siong Soon, Marcel Brass, Hans-Jochen Heinze & John-Dylan Haynes

Already several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain. The researchers from the group of Professor John-Dylan Haynes used a brain scanner to investigate what happens in the human brain just before a decision is made. “Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings.” (Nature Neuroscience, April 13th 2008)

In the study, participants could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hand. They were free to make this decision whenever they wanted, but had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. The aim of the experiment was to find out what happens in the brain in the period just before the person felt the decision was made. The researchers found that it was possible to predict from brain signals which option participants would take already seven seconds before they consciously made their decision. Normally researchers look at what happens when the decision is made, but not at what happens several seconds before. The fact that decisions can be predicted so long before they are made is a astonishing finding.

Micropatterns of activity in the frontopolar cortex were predictive of the choices even before participants knew which option they were going to choose. The decision could not be predicted perfectly, but prediction was clearly above chance. This suggests that the decision is unconsciously prepared ahead of time but the final decision might still be reversible.

“Most researchers investigate what happens when people have to decide immediately, typically as a rapid response to an event in our environment. Here we were focusing on the more interesting decisions that are made in a more natural, self-paced manner”, Haynes explains.

More than 20 years ago the American brain scientist Benjamin Libet found a brain signal, the so-called “readiness-potential” that occurred a fraction of a second before a conscious decision. Libet’s experiments were highly controversial and sparked a huge debate. Many scientists argued that if our decisions are prepared unconsciously by the brain, then our feeling of “free will” must be an illusion. In this view, it is the brain that makes the decision, not a person’s conscious mind. Libet’s experiments were particularly controversial because he found only a brief time delay between brain activity and the conscious decision.

In contrast, Haynes and colleagues now show that brain activity predicts even up to 7 seconds ahead of time how a person is going to decide. But they also warn that the study does not finally rule out free will: “Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought. But we do not know yet where the final decision is made. We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed.”


So are we stuck with running old patterns? Are we at the mercy of automatic and unconscious  patterns? These findings do not preclude our capacity for free-will or our ability to mindfully check “is this decision an effective decision?” It does point to the importance of looking at our automatic patterns. The thinking, feeling and doing patterns we run automatically based on learned beliefs and  engrained habits. If we find we are running a pattern which creates decisions that do not serve us or those we love, or are not aligned with our dreams and values then it might be time to re-pattern that neural pathway.   Fortunately some of the best news out of neuroscience is that our brain is plastic. It can change at any age and create new pathways, new ways of thinking, feeling and acting in the world. Norman Doidge’s runaway bestselling book “The Brain that Changes Itself” is testament to this.

There are ways we can rewire our brain using mindful self-awareness, playfulness, learning new things (novelty), and most of all, by taking new actions. Your brain is willing to change, grow, develop no matter your age or circumstance. In fact, it’s designed to change and adapt.

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