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Medicine Science

Studies Show the Value of Not Overthinking 244

WSJdpatton writes "Fishing in the stream of consciousness, researchers now can detect our intentions and predict our choices before we are aware of them ourselves. The brain, they have found, appears to make up its mind 10 seconds before we become conscious of a decision — an eternity at the speed of thought. Their findings challenge conventional notions of choice, writes WSJ's Robert Lee Hotz."
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Studies Show the Value of Not Overthinking

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  • 10 seconds. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by YttriumOxide ( 837412 ) <> on Saturday June 28, 2008 @09:58AM (#23980451) Homepage Journal
    I'm not sure I can accept this... Primarily because I generally make a decision less than 10 seconds after receiving the final piece of information that I will use to make the decision - often, it's even less than 10 seconds after I knew I had a decision to make. So, how can I have made it before I knew I had to make it? I think the article needs to clarify their definition of "decision".
  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @10:42AM (#23980793) Homepage Journal

    Yeah, but according to the study, this probably means that she decided it long before she told you.... This is why dating sucks. The guy is always the last one to know that the girl he likes is just screwing with his head, has no interest in him whatsoever, and is just using him to piss off her parents, get free home repairs, make her ex jealous, etc.

    I'm assuming, of course, that you're a guy. If you're a girl, she probably decided whether she would or would not sleep with you way back in college.... :-D

  • by eugene ts wong ( 231154 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @10:48AM (#23980855) Homepage Journal

    In fact, it doesn't even tell us that. They were only able to predict the outcome 70%-80% of the time. There's a lot of misinterpretation here. Maybe a majority of us resort to some kind of random generator. Obviously, some people didn't go with their "first decision". That needs more study.

    10 seconds is a long time. I wonder what happens during that time.

  • Sure.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rickb928 ( 945187 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @10:51AM (#23980877) Homepage Journal

    This explains hitting a 90mph fastball.

    I know, the instantaneous response (Wait 10 seconds here please) is that you decided to play, go to the park, get suited up, report to the manager, select your bat, go to the batter's box, choose your stance, raise your bat to position, and then chose to swing it the pitch were where you expected or would accept it, etc etc etc.

    Apparently this 10 second thing is for some decisions, those that require thought. Like whether to believe any of this 10 seond hooey.

    Systems analysis. If you look far enough up the chain, it becomes one thing. Look too far down, and it gets all complicated and difficult, and can't be so easily understood. Makes you sleepy.

  • Re:10 seconds. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kripkenstein ( 913150 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @10:52AM (#23980901) Homepage

    I'm not sure I can accept this...

    You don't need to, because it isn't true. The research is (shock!) misrepresented.

    In a particular type of task, they could predict with 70% accuracy which hand would be used 10 seconds ahead of time. That's the evidence for the summary.

    What this shows is that, in this sort of task, some 'unconscious impulse' precedes the action. In this particular task the impulse predicted correctly 70% of the time (note that even that isn't amazingly high, since 50% you get by random choice). Now, this might be very different with other decisions. For example, the impulse might be right only 55% of the time in other areas, perhaps because the conscious brain overrides it ("I shouldn't eat that; I'll order a salad instead.").

    That said, it's very nice research (when not misrepresented), and important. We're only starting to figure out how the brain works, we'll probably change our theories about it several times before we hit it right.

    A final note: The article is a little populist in treating it as 'surprising' that the unconscious is so important. But this was well-known in academia for a long time. The basic finding is that we are conscious of the products of thought, not the processes. That is, when you play Doom, you don't directly see what makes you decide to use a particular weapon at a particular time. What you do directly sense is that this is a good thing to do, and you do it. Now, sometimes you can make explicit the underlying process - e.g., "I should go over there because it's safer, and a weapon should spawn nearby also" - but this elaboration was not fully present before. There are few cases in which thought processes are entirely explicit, logic and mathematics perhaps the best examples (and even they are not 'purely' conscious).

  • Re:10 seconds. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 28, 2008 @11:15AM (#23981193)

    >The major experiment uses a flawed definition of "decision".
    No, it's you.
    >If I were the subject it might take me several seconds of unconscious cogitation to formulate a plan
    this is not a decision and this is what you find unacceptable.
    >when the next letter flashes I will press the left button, for example.
    this is the decision.
    >At the conscious level you decide when you see the driveway, and that there is no traffic in your way.
    This is done at the unconscious level before you have this impression.
    >The real decision, however, is made as part of the plan to drive to your destination, which may have been decided minutes or hours earlier.
    There was another decision taken then, but they are not connected. If they were, and they can, then you could have a problem because your decision process could get short circuited by the other decision and lead to an accident.
    It has been heavily researched and documented by airplane pilots and there is even live recording of pilots who are crashing their jets and talk during the whole 30s documenting about what they should do now and yet they don't do it. Their decision process was blocked by another decision. Most of the time it comes from personal problems, stress that is work or family related.

    Mostly, people want to connect their conscious thoughts and free will and the decisions they take because they feel like it is so, bacause they don't take a lot of decisions very often mostly.
    But people who have to live on the result of hundred of fast, instataneous, decisions, from piloting to sport or music, know that they are not connected on the instant. People who experience it by accident often describes the resulting action as if "they were watching themselves" doing it.
    My understanding is that the whole conscious process is part of a bigger process where you evaluate the decisions taken, available or review or inject new possibilities in the decision pool. This is where what you call decision is done, but it's more an orientation inside a bigger scheme than just the decisions themselves.

  • by oztiks ( 921504 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @11:31AM (#23981359)

    "But these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg. This doesn't rule out free will, but it does make it implausible."

    Why do some scientists simply insist that because they can prove one particular aspect that everything else surrounding the issue must domino into the same conclusion?

    Saying "free will" doesn't exist based upon their studies is a kin to saying the earth is flat simply because we stand on it upright, lets not take into account any other factors which could remain simply because its presently out of our current ability to grasp and therefore couldn't possibly exist.

    The word "implausible" is badly construed here maybe "cannot be determined" is more appropriate?

    IMHO This has and always will be sciences one and only real undoing at answering life's real questions. Whats wrong with leaving the door open sometimes?

  • Re:10 seconds. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mysticgoat ( 582871 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @12:00PM (#23981715) Homepage Journal

    I don't agree with several aspects of parent post, but I do agree that TFA's introduction of "free will" into the discussion is a red herring.

    The experiments show some very interesting things about the mind's mechanisms, in particular about the relationship of the self-aware, language-using part— call it "ego"— to the parts that do not have direct access to language and might not directly interact with the world. But author of TFA seems to be working with an outdated, simple model that places the ego at the top of the decision hierarchy. Which raises the question of free-will since with this model it appears that the top of the pyramid is being dictated to by mechanistic events happening in lower parts of the mind.

    Bob Newhart had a show in the 1980s (Newhart []) which introduced the comedic trio of Larry, and his brother Darryl, and his other brother Darryl. Larry was the only one who spoke or directly interacted with the other characters: Darryl and Darryl were always hanging back, witnessing the action but never participating (although the audience was able to see their reactions to events). But when a decision was called for, the three would go into a quick huddle and then Larry would state what the decision was. IIRC, at least once in the series he said something like "I like the idea, but my brother Daryl didn't like it so we won't do it."

    There are good reasons to believe that our minds are organized the same way: that the part of the self we are conscious of is the spokesman for very close siblings who happen to share a single body, and our decisions are all group decisions. There is no restriction on the possibility of free will in this: whether the group is constrained in its choices cannot be determined (at least at this time). The spokesman is of course constrained by the group's decision, and that part may or may not understand all the factors that led to a given decision. But that doesn't negate the free will of the group.

    This model supports the research findings, where instrumentation was able to deduce something about the non-verbal deciders seconds before the spokesman had finished polling his sibs. It also can explain the way someone astute in reading non-verbal cues can make very good guesses about what an individual will decide to do, sometimes before that person is himself aware of his decision.

  • Re:I believe it. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DirePickle ( 796986 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @12:36PM (#23982187)
    Penny, dime, nickel, quarter, half dollar, dollar.
  • Re:I believe it. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by dodobh ( 65811 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @01:26PM (#23982779) Homepage

    Just toss the coin 'n' times, where 'n' is a positive integer such that 2^n >= k > 2^(n-1) where k is the number of possible choices.

  • "But these data show that consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg. This doesn't rule out free will, but it does make it implausible."

    Consciousness is not thought, or reasoning, it's the narrative that you tell yourself about yourself. It's not even the tip of the iceberg, it's a flashlight that turns itself on to reassure itself that the iceberg is still there, it's a model of the iceberg made of fog and seaspray and drifting snow. All this is doing is confirming what's been increasingly obvious for decades: you are not your conscious self, any more than a computer is its display, or a corporation its lobby, or a nation its flag and national bird.

    So this says nothing about free will, because your will is not what you're thinking about, it's why you're thinking about it.

    The fellow who wrote those words needs to meet Mister Volition [].

  • Re:I believe it. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Dun Malg ( 230075 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @02:18PM (#23983335) Homepage

    Most of what we do, we do on "autopilot", and our consciousness re-orders the stream of events so that we believe we "decided" to do what we did.

    Well, we did decide. We just didn't decide right then. We decided to brake for obstacles back when we learned to drive, then consciously reinforced that reaction. The conscious mind is the "after action analyst". The fact that the conscious mind feels like it and its programmed, autonomous slave sub-minds are one and the same is where the "illusion" comes from. Really, the problem is that people keep trying to separate the "conscious" from the "unconscious". It's all wired together.

  • Re:10 seconds. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Prune ( 557140 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @08:41PM (#23986315)
    Fist, metaphysics is not a science. Second, since around the times after Newton, the sciences have become simply too large to be well understood in general by a single person. There's no such a thing as a psychologist, for example: there is a cognitive psychologist, a pathological psychologist, an experimental psychologist, etc. Fields like biology are even more extremely specialized, to the point where even sub-fields are fragmented: someone trained in one area of microbiology would have essentially zero comprehension when reading a paper from another area of microbiology. To imply that a physicist is somehow qualified to understand and have significant insight in another science in which s/he has no formal training, is either flippant or arrogant. Equally so to imply that non-physicists do use their brains. Mathematics very much plays a part in many sub-fields of psychology. (I'm neither a physicist nor a psychologist, if it matters.)
  • by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Monday June 30, 2008 @10:35AM (#24000289) Homepage Journal

    The problem is that the guys who are good and honest and don't mask their intentions at all are weeded out in the first round by that sort of behavior. People who are trustworthy assume that they can trust others as a general rule, so when a girl sends confusing signals, they assume the girl is honestly confused. Then, they either A. try to help the girl figure out her feelings by opening up more, thus causing the girl to totally freak out because a guy actually expresses his emotions, B. interpret her ambivalence as indicative of probable future rejection and give up immediately, or C. interpret her ambivalence as a sign of dishonesty and reject the girl outright. As a result, the girl's deception ends up driving off the most loyal and honest possible mates---precisely the guys she should be trying to attract.

    The most crucial thing a woman can learn is that it is better to trust and risk getting hurt than to deceive and evade, thus guaranteeing it. As for me, I reject the "game". I don't play games with other people, and I don't expect other people to play games with me. What you see is what you get, and if a girl doesn't like that and can't simply accept me without playing mind games, she isn't worth my time. Life's too short to waste time chasing after somebody who isn't honest, open, and caring.

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