It is increasingly clear that all the decisions in your life have been made by your 'I' of 11 seconds ago
It is a war that does not stop. Scientists are still bent on showing that we have less control over our personal choices than we think. And if free will is the Moby-Dick of these Ahab Captains in gowns and encephalograms, the role of unconscious brain activity in our choices is the condensed jets of water that mark the place where they are most vulnerable.
A new study from the University of New South Wales has analyzed with the help of the machine learning that brain activity prior to conscious decisions and has just shown that we can predict what pattern people will imagine 11 seconds before they actually do. Another blow to free will?
I know what you did last ... handful of seconds
Beyond the problems with indeterminism, the work published by Scientific Reports is very interesting to understand the neuroscience of personal decisions. The experiment consisted of asking two people to choose to imagine a visual pattern between two that were presented with red and green stripes (one horizontal and one vertical) while observing them under the huge magnet of a functional MRI.
In addition to asking participants to say which of the patterns they had chosen, they were asked to rate the subjective intensity with which they had imagined the pattern. The researchers found that they could not only predict which pattern they would choose, but also predict how intensely they would. That is, they not only found out the content but also the intensity of the mental image.
Another really interesting detail is that the machine learning algorithms used used data from the executive areas of the brain (where decisions are theoretically processed), yes; but also from the visual and subcortical areas. Something that suggests that the complexity of the neural networks that are related to the choice process is much greater than traditionally thought.
Is free will in trouble?
The researchers are not clear. Joel Pearson, director of the laboratory and main author of the work, thinks that what is happening is that the brain is processing and elaborating the information that it receives continuously. In this way, it is not that he "makes the decisions" beforehand, but that, when analyzing, evaluating and pointing out all the options, this work critically influences the final decision.
"When we make the decision of what to think, the executive areas of our brain choose the strongest 'thought trail'. In other words, our brain is more likely to choose that option for which there is pre-existing brain activity." Pearson explained.
For didactic purposes, what the authors suggest is that the unconscious activity of the brain is an enormous advisory body that dedicates all day to making very complete reports that greatly facilitate the work of choice. Other scientists will point out, almost without a doubt, that they make it so easy for you that they actually do all the work for you.
I mean, the controversy is still here, of course. This work alone cannot demonstrate that all our choices are decided 11 seconds before we make them consciously, but if we look at the research as a whole everything points to it regardless of how we want to understand it. What this work does make clear is that "it shows that this mechanism exists and that it represents a potential bias in our daily decisions." Something worth taking into account.