January 4, 2009 | David F. Coppedge

Your Brain Decides Best Unconsciously

A report on Science Daily claims your subconscious brain makes the best decisions possible.  This is based on work by cognitive neuroscientists at the University of Rochester.  Alex Pouget believes the brain is hard-wired to make optimal decisions – when we are not consciously thinking about them.

Pouget has been demonstrating for years that certain aspects of human cognition are carried out with surprising accuracy.  He has employed what he describes as a very simple unconscious-decision test.  A series of dots appears on a computer screen, most of which are moving in random directions.  A controlled number of these dots are purposely moving uniformly in the same direction, and the test subject simply has to say whether he believes those dots are moving to the left or right.  The longer the subject watches the dots, the more evidence he accumulates and the more sure he becomes of the dots’ motion.
    Subjects in this test performed exactly as if their brains were subconsciously gathering information before reaching a confidence threshold, which was then reported to the conscious mind as a definite, sure answer.  The subjects, however, were never aware of the complex computations going on, instead they simply “realized” suddenly that the dots were moving in one direction or another.  The characteristics of the underlying computation fit with Pouget’s extensive earlier work that suggested the human brain is wired naturally to perform calculations of this kind.

Pouget believes that there are advantages to the brain’s ability to sort through data and make decisions probabilistically.  It allows a reasonable decision to be reached in a reasonable amount of time.  The brain apparently has a different threshold of certainty for each situation.  How it sets those thresholds is the subject of his ongoing research.
    The article states that this study contradicts earlier research that assumed humans rarely make rational decisions.  “Researchers at the University of Rochester have shown that the human brain—once thought to be a seriously flawed decision maker—is actually hard-wired to allow us to make the best decisions possible with the information we are given,” the article began.  In fact, “Neuroscientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky received a 2002 Nobel Prize for their 1979 research that argued humans rarely make rational decisions.”  That “conventional wisdom” appears to be overturned by Pouget’s work.  The article did not mention evolution.

The study supports simple decision-making optimality, like which way dots are moving, but rational decisions about truth and morality are not best left to the subconscious mind.  Pouget most likely did not decide what constitutes an optimal decision by sleeping on it.  We assume he wrote his paper while concentrating.
    Nevertheless, there is a lot more going on in the brain than we realize.  Have you noticed how you can often recall a fact better by thinking about something else?  It seems as if a subdomain of your brain takes on a kind of Google-search operation when your conscious mind focuses elsewhere, and delivers the answer later.  Maybe you got the answer in your sleep and remembered it on awakening.  Have you ever played a piece of your favorite music in your head, then recalled it later after changing attention to something else, and found your brain playing a later section of the work?  It’s as if it had been playing all along in the background, like a record player you left going in one room as you walked about and came back.
    Yet your mind is not slavishly bound to reproduce the original music, either; with your imagination, you can speed it up, slow it down, change key, or add new parts.  The wonders of the brain and how it interacts with the soul are only partially understood by experimentation.  We have tools, but tools are not the mind.  To see that, ask “who” in Pouget’s brain was running the experiments on his subjects and deciding they were making rational decisions.  Think rationally about intellectual and moral questions.  Your autopilot tools can assist with the computer-like background operations and responses to stimuli – under the control of your mind.

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Categories: Amazing Facts, Human Body

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