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Your brain makes decisions before you even realize it

Published Mar 6th, 2019 11:07PM EST

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You make countless decisions every day that range from mundane to incredibly important, but what part of you is actually making those decisions? We all assume that our brains are focused on whatever task we’re tackling, but a new study suggests that your brain is usually working a few steps ahead all on its own, and it makes your decisions long before you consciously think about them.

The study, which was published in Scientific Reports, reveals that what we often think of as free will and our ability to make decisions on the fly isn’t nearly as cut-and-dry. Your brain, it turns out, might be running the show largely in the background.

The experiment was fairly straightforward, tasking volunteers to decide between two patterns with different colors and orientations. Their brains were being monitored in an fMRI machine while the images flashed before their eyes, and the researchers were able to match brain activity patterns with whatever choice the subject was making.

That part isn’t particularly surprising, since scientists have long known that repeatable brain patterns can correlate with decision making. But what’s interesting about this research is that the team found the participants brain activity could predict their eventual choices before the individual was even asked to make a choice.

“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,” Professor Joel Pearson, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “As the decision of what to think about is made, executive areas of the brain choose the thought-trace which is stronger. In, other words, if any pre-existing brain activity matches one of your choices, then your brain will be more likely to pick that option as it gets boosted by the pre-existing brain activity.”

Put simply, the path you’re about to choose when you make a decision can sometimes be pre-determined before you even actively consider your options. The researchers found that they could predict the outcome up to 11 seconds before the subject began to weigh their decision.

“This would explain, for example, why thinking over and over about something leads to ever more thoughts about it, as it occurs in a positive feedback loop,” Pearson said.