All our lives we are told to make the right decisions. When we are young, our parents tell us to do the right thing. As we age, becoming adults, our bosses tell us that we need to make the right decisions for the organization. Our spouses inevitably applaud and pan the choices and decisions we make. Our kid’s second guess our actions and our friends wonder what made us do that anyway? And so it goes.
All of this makes a basic assumption: We are the ones making these choices. We actively choose something. And, we can change our choices.
But who really makes the decisions we end up making? Do we in fact have control over that?
Most people would respond to that question with an emphatic, “Of course, I do. Who else would?”
There is now startling new research which indicates that we are in fact not making the decisions we think we are making. At least, not in the way one assumes.
Neuroscience experiments using fMRI machines have now shown that what we think are conscious decisions are actually being made before we are in fact conscious of them at all! In other words, before we are conscious of making a choice, it has already been made for us in a deeper subconscious level which we are not aware of. There is an illusion that our conscious minds are in control; rationally reviewing “evidence” and then deciding upon something. Apparently we are not. Our “thinking” is merely rubber stamping what has happened long before we are consciously aware of the choice.
Some of this peculiar paradox has been known for a long time. In an ancient and now dead language called Pali (spoken in India more than two millennia ago), the word Sankhara literally means “that which puts together” and is in the specific context of mental “dispositions” and “volition formations”. There is evidence that folks from that time already understood that decisions are not being made at the conscious level. In fact, some ancient meditation techniques (like Vipassana) are specifically taught to allow the practioner to become “aware” of the areas of the unconscious mind, where emotions, feelings and responses actually originate.
This is not an easy concept to grasp. We work and live on the assumption of free will and deliberate choices. We intuitively function under the concept of dualism, where we take for granted that our minds and bodies are separate. Our mind decides, and our bodies respond. Some of this is now being put under stress by this new research. Before we reach conclusions, a lot more work will need to be done. But the preliminary research evidence upsets the intuitive logic of what we all take for granted.
So, what did the researchers actually find?
First, a team led by John-Dylan Haynes, at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Berlin, Germany, conducted a series of experiments where participants inside an fMRI were asked to press a button with their right or left hand. The researchers scanned the brains of the participants to predict which button they would choose to press, and watched the brain areas sequentially trigger in that decision process.
The results were startling. By watching the brain images of the participant, the researchers were able to ‘see’ and therefore predict the decision 6-7 seconds before the participant had made a conscious decision to press the button. In other words, the conscious, active part of the brain where the person thought he/she was deciding which button to press, triggers after other brain areas had already made the choice of which button to press.
You can watch the video of this experiment with Prof. Marcus Du Sautoy (Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford) who went through the study as a participant:
The Science Channel has done an entire episode on this issue with Morgan Freeman providing commentary.
In March 2013, in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, C.S. Soon and others, (http://www.pnas.org/content/110/15/6217), went even further. They demonstrated that the lead time for decisions is 4 seconds with a prediction accuracy of 60%, which is a highly significant difference from randomness. In other words, it cannot be coincidence. This experiment did not rely upon motor decisions (buttons being pressed), but added the element of an arithmetical operation. Apparently, the answers to your math problems are being manifest before your conscious mind figures it out. Ever found a solution out of thin air, and then wondered where it came from? It may have come less from air and more from your own unconscious mind.
The results of these lab experiments are highly problematic at a number of levels. They blur the line between terms like intuition, gut reaction, conscious choice, rational decision, free will etc.
For example, can you be held liable for an action which you did not consciously select? Taken to the extreme…
“Sorry Officer, it wasn’t me that was driving fast. I didn’t decide that. Apparently, I don’t decide anything.”
“Miss, I didn’t finish my homework, because I had no choice!”
“Honey, I have been drinking beer and watching TV all day. Nothing I could do about it. Really.”
Before you start making these excuses for yourself, there is a lot more to learn about this uncanny nature of our decision making which we still have to completely unpeel. But this newest research reopens centuries of philosophical debate; am I really thinking and choosing, or automatically carrying out the dictate of a deeper brain recess that I do not control?
Decisions almost seem to be made at some subconscious level, and only then bubble up and are manifested to us in a conscious manner. Can we acquaint ourselves with this level where decisions are actually being made? And where is this place?
Who thinks? Who decides? Who does? Am I who I think I am?