Written by Dave Tuttle

Edited by Andrew Neff

November 2019

Predicting Thoughts

Deciphering intent with brain imaging

How well can someone understand their subconscious? While some may be more in tune with their deeper thoughts, most of us are unable to access this mysterious and elusive part of our minds. However, what if someone’s decisions could be predicted before they were determined at a conscious level? What if one’s thoughts were formed before they were, for lack of a better word, thought?

 

Understanding the subconscious could be a valuable tool in both the sciences and in philosophy, creating a better discernment of our autonomy. So, what if neuroscientists could see into our unconscious minds and know our decisions; would we be fearful of the possible repercussions of such knowledge, or would we be delighted in the novelty of our own minds?

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In a 1985 study, neuroscientists used brain recordings to predict decisions seconds before volunteers were aware that a decision was made. In this study, participants were asked to push a button whenever they felt the urge to do so. By analyzing brain activity, researchers discovered that participant’s choices could be predicted seconds before they realized they had come to a conclusion. This does not mean that it took the participants seconds to press the buttons. No, it means that seconds before the participants had the conscious thought pop into their mind, researchers knew what their decision would be. 

A more recent study performed in March of 2019 asked the next logical question: can we predict the strength of these signals and choices? The answer was, of course, yes. Researchers found that using fMRI, they were able to see just how powerful each urge to push one of the buttons was. The fMRI scans showed that leading up to a decision, a positive feedback loop could be identified that intensified over time. By analyzing these scans, researchers were able to determine that certain areas of the brain were more predictive of the strength and vividness of the decision. And once again, this knowledge about the intensity of a subject’s decision was made available well before the participants were aware that they had made a choice, this time eleven seconds before.

So, what does all this mean? Do we lack free will? Well, it isn't quite that black and white. While the scientists in the 2019 study were confident in their results, they acknowledged some major limitations. For one, while something as simple as what button to press is measurable, more complex decisions like whether to adopt a pet are more difficult to measure. Second, the experimental design relies on participants being able to accurately self-report their awareness, this subjectivity can’t really be ignored.

But even given these constraints, the implications of these studies are remarkable. Predictive AI could flourish under this umbrella of research, helping advance an already rapidly growing and quite startling industry. By understanding the ways people make decisions, scientists and advertisers alike could better market and, to a certain degree, control what we buy. With technological improvements, the complexity of the thoughts that could be analyzed could progress as well. Thoughts such as, should one buy a house, or a new car, or should one accept a new job offer, could be analyzed, furthering our understanding of thought, decision-making, the unconscious, and the mind as a whole.

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