You Think, You Decide, Maybe
April 16, 2008
Wired Magazine reported that in a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people’s decisions seven seconds before the people were even aware of making them. Patterns consistently predicted whether test subjects eventually pushed a button with their left or right hand — a choice that, to them, felt like the outcome of conscious deliberation. But was it? Debate over whether conscious choice is an illusion ramps up.
“You’re the outcome of genetics, social environment and conditioned response, and if we are able to track key events in your past and couple them with a few of your more influential genes, I’ll accurately predict every decision you make after age 30,” said scientist and part-time psychic Kelly Bartap Pool, a muscular blonde who knows your every thought and often slaps men’s faces before they even speak. “Everything is predictable, the hindrance is complexity and the inability of most of us to tap psychic phenomena and wrestle an occasional fact out of spirits and the U.S. tax code. These may seem impossible, but given time and scientific inquiry and an MRI or two, ultimately we can discern anything.”
Not everyone thinks that humans are just a bag of stuff easily predicted if we just unravel a few strands of code or a previous life experience. “Humans are physical, mental and spiritual beings and while some things can be learned from the study and measurement of electromagnetic pulses in our brains and stuff like that, you can never plumb the depths of the soul and fully know even one human being. Only god can do that,” said Dr. Sandra Hale-Hardy, a sturdy physician whose book called “The Soul in Your Toe” remains a cult classic in some secret societies. “A scientist may intercept the instruction to flip a switch before it gets to the brain node that carries out the action, but that’s a long way from explaining why a person chooses to become a rocket scientist, buy a Chevy instead of a Honda, or refuses to change socks and share the TV clicker with their spouse.”
Study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a Max Planck Institute neuroscientist, updated a classic experiment by the late Benjamin Libet, who showed that a brain region involved in coordinating motor activity fired a fraction of a second before test subjects chose to push a button. Later studies supported Libet’s theory that subconscious activity preceded a determined conscious choice — but none found such a vast gap between a decision and the experience of making it as Haynes’ study has. In the seven seconds before Haynes’ test subjects chose to push a button, activity shifted in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of sensory integration. Haynes’ team monitored these shifting neural patterns using a functional MRI machine.
For those accustomed to thinking of themselves as having free will, the implications are far more unsettling than learning about the physiological basis of other brain functions. However, the predictions were not completely accurate. Maybe free will enters at the last moment, allowing a person to override an unpalatable subconscious decision. And another question emerges: can someone or something from the outside intercept the instruction and send a different one?
“I’ve headed out the door of the office on the way to lunch and ended up golfing or going to baseball games in stead of returning to work, and I don’t think it’s my fault,” said E.Z. Turner, a corporate executive who’d rather be somewhere else most of the time. “I think that some kind of electron marketing beam is interrupting the neurotransmitters that had every intention of getting me back to the office and instead I turn up at Cubs games eating hot dogs and drinking beer. I think it’s a marketing ploy or something else I can’t control. It’s not my fault and my boss needs to understand that. I’d stay and talk to you more like I planned, but I’m going to go eat some Big Macs instead. I’m not sure why. See ya.”
In other news, some Republicans have been voting in Democrat primaries recently. The voters say they’re going to the polls with the intent of voting Republican but then change and vote between the two Democrats instead. Some say it’s because it’s fun to “cause trouble” and others say they’re responding to messages being sent through the air waves into their brains. “I don’t know why I’m doing it for sure,” said a voter during an exit poll. “But I like it because it makes me giddy.”
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