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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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  • by Fustican ( 897132 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @10:08AM (#23980523)
    The test the article discusses seems rather arbitrary -- letters streaming across a screen, and you decide when to press a button. Perhaps what they detected was the buildup of boredom? Analyzing complex inputs and reasoning to a decision is a far more complex thing. In any case, I'm not convinced that all my decisions are predetermined by fate or particle physics.
  • Re:10 seconds. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by John_Sauter ( 595980 ) <John_Sauter@systemeyescomputerstore.com> on Saturday June 28, 2008 @10:20AM (#23980619) Homepage

    The major experiment uses a flawed definition of "decision". If I were the subject it might take me several seconds of unconscious cogitation to formulate a plan: when the next letter flashes I will press the left button, for example. The real decision is made below the level of consciousness, so the letter recorded is the one shown when the action is started, not the one shown when the decision-making process is started.

    This is similar to driving a car. When you are driving to a well-known destination, when do you "decide" to turn the steering wheel to enter the parking lot? At the conscious level you decide when you see the driveway, and that there is no traffic in your way. 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.

    The experiment is really about the unconscious part of the decision-making process. That is interesting, but it has nothing to do with free will, since our unconscious is as much a part of us as our conscious.

  • Re:10 seconds. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @10:38AM (#23980765) Journal
    It is clarified. Apparently you didn't read the article? :)

    It is not an experiment that backs up the claims of the summary at all. Challenging conventional notions of choice? Not at all.....how often do you make a choice based on logic anyway? What flavor of ice cream to eat? It's what you feel like eating. What to do next after you get home from work? Whatever you feel like doing. Some decisions don't require any work from the logic point of the brain.

    For example, the 'choice' made by the subjects of this experiment was whether they should push a right button or a left button. When confronted with such a choice, I would first sit there for a second wondering, "how the heck am I going to decide which one is best?" and then after finding nothing, give up and push whichever button I randomly felt like pushing. There IS no rational choice that can be made in such a situation. It's not a rational question.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure the actual study is useless (even if the WSJ's analysis is). Seems they are using brain scanners to figure out more how the brain works, which is a good thing.
  • by Robert1 ( 513674 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @10:49AM (#23980863) Homepage

    From personal experience this is a very likely to be the case. In college when I participated in random psych experiments, as required by the class, I would notice gaping errors in testing that completely tainted the results.

    Example: I signed up for 1/2 hour experiment, I get there and the tell me it's an hour long and I will be analyzing erotic art with a female student. They emphasized that, which I thought was pretty unnecessary and odd, and there was no girl in the waiting room with me before the experiment. Anyway I put all this together and figured it was just a fake-out and that I wasn't going to be doing any actual analysis. Sure enough the researcher comes in and says "ok she will be coming in soon, rearrange the tables and chairs how you like." Uhuh, yeah this isn't contrived. Anyway I intentionally put the chairs right next to each other just to be contrary, because at this point it was beyond ridiculous to keep playing along. Anyway then they came in, took pictures of the chairs, and told me it was all a trick to see how I would position them - WHO WOULD HAVE GUESSED?!

    Anyway, almost all the experiments I did had some kind of fatal flaw in it. I had another one - similar to what you're talking about - in which I was told to look at various numerical matrices which were then taken away and I was asked to answer 5 timed-questions about it. If I finished the question block a new matrix showed up, but the questions were complicated enough that I often could not even finish them before the timer ran out. This went on for ONE HOUR. After 10 minutes I was mentally exhausted and just putting in whatever for answers to get through all my blocks as fast as possible - I had totally stopped caring. At this point I also assumed that this must be the actual experiment - to gauge exhaustion. But no, when the researcher came in he thanked me and that's it - if it had been another experiment he would have had to tell me.

    So unless we see the entire experimental procedure written down, it's impossible to determine if their findings were legitimately obtained. Unlike other disciplines, psych/neuro results are particular susceptible to improper experimental procedure. Like you say, they could have just detected boredom.

  • Re:10 seconds. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by dreamchaser ( 49529 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @10:53AM (#23980911) Homepage Journal

    I'm very sure I can't accept it. Having studied various martial arts for the past 30 years, I can tell you with certainty that I can engage in action the instant I decide what I am going to do when responding to a threat situation. It's not just a matter of reflex and ingrained response. Time slows down immediately and I can often sift through a large number of options and decision points. Is this really a threat? If so, what's the best response? Run? Strike? Duck?

    The same goes for more routine and mundane decisions, the way you put it exactly. Unless I am some how looking into the future and getting data that isn't there ten seconds before it's available, it takes me a LOT less time than 10 seconds to make a decision after I have all the information needed for said decision.

  • Re:I believe it. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by trolltalk.com ( 1108067 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @11:12AM (#23981163) Homepage Journal

    I used to do the same thing.

    This study doesn't bring anything new to the table - we've known for a LOOOONG time that what we perceive as "consciousness" is really more akin to a "ghost in the machine."

    What is important, however, is that, despite all this, we can actually, with enough thought, make decisions based on logic, as opposed to "feelings" or "what we think is reasonable."

    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. Classic example - think of any time when you jammed on the brakes because of someone who rushed in front of the car ... and think back, and you'll realize that you already had braked before you even were aware of the person, because even the half-second lag between perception and stepping on the brake pedal would have been too long.

  • Re:All women do this (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ElectricRook ( 264648 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @11:46AM (#23981541)

    ...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...

    Perhaps the guy needs to learn to play the dating/socialization game. Mario does not get to work on the plumbing without sufficient chick points. Those points are easily won/lost by various action/inaction that are not clearly understood by a logically thinking Wandering Software Salesman.
    To play the game well, one must watch the Pros. The body condition and face score you rolled are not really the great advantage a player would think they are Young Grasshopper. A pro does not lurk like a stalker, nor does he charge like a predator. To play well takes time and _much_ patience... You must always play this game, or never at all. Subscription services are newbie invitations to the playing fields, treat them as such. Activity clubs, or volunteer organizations can be much better. Electronics/Technology are usually point detriments in this game. That means throwing away the TV/computer games and play full time (except that watching/discussing a few Chick shows can be serious points). College is a great place to play, the work place is really poor on many levels. Always play as an observer, a predator never fits in with a herd. If you focus on your objective (sex), you will fail to achieve it. Move in and around the playing field and the players picking up points here and there. One the players will find you, and give you points. Any player who gives you too many points too soon can be dangerous (fatal attraction). Observe other players, and see if they sense the danger. Always collect points even from players outside your classification (age bracket or other classification), as low point tallies with multiple players can form a progressive points multiplier in addition to added experience.
    Good luck, play safe, enjoy.

  • Not this again (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Dun Malg ( 230075 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @12:08PM (#23981817) Homepage

    Their findings challenge conventional notions of choice

    I am seriously sick and tired of this notion coming up every time some study or other points out that your "conscious brain" fires up some amount of time after some other part of the brain has already started taking the action. THis shows a complete and utter failure to understand how our brains work. The conscious mind is in control, it's just not consciously "working the levers" every freakin' second. How would you find time to think about anything of consequence if you had to constantly coordinate everything your body does? "OK, now I'm breathing, now I'm moving my eyes to follow the sentence I'm reading, now I'm moving my hand to adjust the lighting on the book...."--- you'd never have the clock cycles to comprehend the material. No, the brain uses a sort of distributed computing. Your conscious mind instructs the autonomous slave sub-parts how to react to certain stimuli, and expects them to do the dirty work while it thinks of more important things (usually sex). That one study that externally manipulated people's brains to make them choose a certain card, then asked them why they chose it, and people always came up with some justification? It's not a lack of free will there, it's just that the conscious mind is accustomed to its "slaves" only doing things it has previously trained them to do. Of course your conscious analytical mind is going to justify the action somehow.
    An example: If you decide that the next time you see Joe, you're going to punch him, a scientist monitoring your brain the next time you see Joe will find that your "punching brain" acted before your "conscious brain" did. Does that indicate a lack of free will? You'd have to be an idiot to think so. All it indicates is that your "conscious brain" has a number of programmable sub-units at its disposal.

  • Re:I believe it. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Maxime ( 1178763 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @12:28PM (#23982043) Journal
    I see the funny side of your comment, but 6 coins aren't equivalent to a 64 dice: they are indistinguishable so HHHTTT == TTTHHH.
  • Re:10 seconds. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by magisterx ( 865326 ) <{TimothyAWiseman} {at} {gmail.com}> on Saturday June 28, 2008 @01:09PM (#23982589)
    This is a brilliant point. Most of our thought is done well ahead of time, and much of learning (especially in physical activities, but it applies to other things as well) is training ourselves to push things that initially required conscious thought into automatic activities. When I was first learning to drive, I had to think about every time I turned on the turn signal, how often I looked in the rearview mirror, even how much to turn the wheel and I often over corrected. I also didn't think of much of anything else while driving that was directly relevant to driving.

    Later, learning to drive a stick shift was the same way. I initially had to pay careful conscious attention to the motor's RPM's, my current speed, my desired speed and such things. After a few weeks, it became automatic and I never gave it any thought at all.

    I am in no way an expert on how the mind works, but the way it subjectively seems to be for me is that I no longer have to think about those types of decisions (when to shift gears, when to look in the rearview) because I have trained myself through practice to do them automatically. In a sense, it subjectively feels like I no longer even make those decision at all. But the reason I do not make them is not that I do not have free will and am not capable of making them, rather it is that I have already made them. I decided long ago and trained myself to go along with the decision, that when I am present with a certain set of stimuli I react a certain way. In those cases I no longer have to make the decision.
  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @02:57PM (#23983711)

    Than putting standard reflexes to work putting you in an advantageous position.

    e.g. The standard reflex might be to simply duck and cover your head. Someone trained in a realistic martial art (rather than playing tag) will certainly also duck and cover their head in exactly the same way in an identical situation, but may then follow that by trapping an opponent's arm and smacking them in the face with an elbow. For example the first movements of heian nidan/pinan shodan.

    It may look like lightning reflexes, but the reflexive part of it is identical to that of anyone else. What follows is trained to automatic. The point the grandparent post makes, well, yeah, time does slow down when the adrenalin hits, but if you have to think, you are seriously going to get your arse handed to you, don't rely on thinking faster than the other guy.


  • Re:I believe it. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by trolltalk.com ( 1108067 ) on Saturday June 28, 2008 @03:17PM (#23983893) Homepage Journal

    Your foot is on the brake well before you're aware that the person is there. Otherwise, they'd be road pizza.

    It's possible to completely bypass any "consciousness".

    One of the earliest reports was about a guy whose skull was cleaved open with an ice axe. They shoved his brains back in, and he "recovered." He would get up, wash, get dressed, go to work, etc. --- but there was "nobody home". All identity had disappeared. He was just an automaton.

    Conscious decision-making, or even awareness, isn't necessary for most activities once they're learned.

  • by Nullav ( 1053766 ) <.Nullav.gmail. .ta. .com.> on Sunday June 29, 2008 @05:09AM (#23988631)

    The next time I get injured, I'm blaming lag. (Seriously, how does that challenge free-will in any way?)

You can measure a programmer's perspective by noting his attitude on the continuing viability of FORTRAN. -- Alan Perlis