Predicting decisions

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article explaining that researchers have found the brain appears to make up its mind 10 seconds before its owner become conscious of a decision.  If this sounds familiar, that’s because the study came out in April and received some press attention then.  It appears that the researchers’ focus was to predict whether study participants would push a button with their left hand or a different button with their right hand.  Brain scans prior to the action can predict which button is pushed with more accuracy than chance alone.  Furthermore, the prediction can be made before the participant claims to have made the decision.

The study is touted as evidence that our conscious minds are riding in the back seat and our decisions are made unconsciously in advance.  That may be true, but from the press coverage of this story, I don’t see how this study provides much evidence.  It’s fairly obvious that our conscious decisions are proceeded by a period of consideration.  Before someone pushes a button, they must decide to push it, and before they decide to start moving their finger toward a button, they must decide which finger and which button.  One doesn’t claim to have made a decision until all consideration is completed, so it’s not surprising that researchers have found evidence of a consideration period.  People flip-flopping at the last minute might explain why the predictions are not more accurate.

I haven’t paid the $32 to read the study directly, so perhaps the study’s methodology guarded against this apparent deficiency.  The mainstream press could very well have omitted critical parts of the research.  It’s still really cool that they can read our minds, regardless of whether it’s our conscious minds or our unconscious minds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *