When you ponder something carefully and eventually make a choice, do you think you’ve done a conscious decision?
Because researchers at the Future Minds Lab at UNSW School of Psychology have just found a way to predict your next move even before you’ve made that decision.
This is not a joke. The study, published only recently in the Journal Nature, is challenging the very notion of human free will.
Fourteen people were selected for this experiment. They were all connected to an fMRI machine for brain imaging.
The researchers asked them to pick between two visual patterns – one comprised of red horizontal stripes, and the other with green vertical stripes.
They then had to consciously imagine them while connected to the fMRI, and in a 20 seconds time span they had to decide between the two.
Once the decision was made, they pressed a button, and for the next 10 seconds they had to visualize the chosen pattern as best as possible.
The participants then had to answer subsequent questions like “what did you imagine?” and “how vivid was it?” by pressing a button.
The results were staggering: researchers could predict the selected patterns before the study participants would make a conscious decision.
In other words, by reading their unconscious neural behaviour, scientists were able to predict the next move before it became a conscious thought.
“Not only could the researchers predict which pattern they would choose, they could also predict how strongly the participants were to rate their visualisations,” read a UNSW press release.
“With the assistance of machine learning, the researchers were successful at making above-chance predictions of the participants’ volitional choices at an average of 11 seconds before the thoughts became conscious.”
One of the reference points of the study was the early visual cortex – brain region where visual information from the outside environment is received.
This has led researchers to believe that our perceptual areas responsible with receiving visual information (and possibly other types) play a role in how intensely we think about something.
This could mean that we have thoughts readily available based on our previous brain activity, which unwillingly coordinates our decision-making mechanism before we even decide on something.
Professor Joel Pearson who was part of the research team explains how “we believe that when we are faced with the choice between two or more options of what to think about, non-conscious traces of the thoughts are there already, a bit like unconscious hallucinations.”
As the decision of what to think about is made, executive areas of the brain choose the thought-trace which is stronger. In other words, if any pre-existing brain activity matches one of our choices, then your brain will be more likely to pick that option as it gets boosted by the pre-existing brain activity,” he concluded.
While you might have understood the potentially intrusive nature of this technology, you might want to know that it’s not the first of its kind.
In fact, the research was based on previously successful architectures that could predict “motor decisions” anywhere between 7 to 10 seconds before they occurred, and “abstract decisions” up to 4 seconds before becoming a conscious decision.
Neuroscientific research has repeatedly shown how our brains are ready to make a decision before we become conscious of it.
The length between a thought becoming conscious and the actual decision we make is just a few milliseconds.
Apparently, this measly interval is the only time when we can push back our unconscious impulses and replace them with conscious actions, therefore setting a foundation for free will, explains this Quartz report.
While this type of technology could benefit people with mental disorders, like PTSD where patients experience intrusive thoughts, it’s clear how it can also turn into a tool that could end the privacy of the only place that still remains locked…for the moment.
In the wake of cutting-edge technology revolving around artificial intelligence, more such pervasive technologies are emerging.
Only a few weeks ago I have showed you how researchers at Columbia University have managed to decrypt human thoughts and turn them into eligible speech.
Probably the most troubling initiative of them all is that of Facebook, that’s planning to literally infiltrate our minds and read our thoughts in the near future.
It is vital to understand that, considering the hasty pace at which technology is evolving, it’s only a matter of time until human-decrypting artificial systems will be available.
With people’s data as the new gold, it’s easy to imagine what these technologies will feast on.
It remains just a matter of time until the singularity scenario will come into existence, and there is no saying how the human race will evolve in the near future…or if we’ll be lucky enough to survive this transhumanistic transition.
For now, you should stay informed on how such technologies with huge intrusive risk evolve, and stay on your guard for when the grand plan will unveil.
There are, of course, ways you can boycott or avoid such technologies as they will be rolled out into the open. But this is the topic of discussion for another time.