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nebule's avatar

What are the implications of the brain making decisions rather than consciousness?

Asked by nebule (16159 points ) November 1st, 2009

There was a programme on TV…BBC2, two weeks ago about consciousness: Horizon: The Secret You , which delved into what consciousness is.

The final experiment that they showed proved that scientists could establish which decision a human would make, 6 seconds before the human consciously made the decision – by pressing a button to indicate which option they were choosing.

What implications do these findings have for you? Does this mean that we are indeed just a kind of advanced robot that has given rise to a conceptual superfluous consciousness?

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29 Answers

dpworkin's avatar

What that showed is that 6 seconds before the motor function, some process took place. I wouldn’t extrapolate a theory of mind/brain dualism on that sort of evidence.

nikipedia's avatar

I can’t see any reason that we should have a consciousness independent of our brain. I’ve never met a consciousness that didn’t have a functional brain, and I’ve never seen a functional brain without consciousness.

I don’t know why we continue to insist there should be some kind of magical “mind” or “consciousness” independent of our material brain when we can explain our behavior pretty darn well by studying brains.

Iclamae's avatar

I just thought it meant that it was taking 6 seconds to go from brain to finger tips.

Doesn’t that kind of prediction depend on what kind of decision the person is making? Different parts of the brain are triggered and processing, etc. And I feel like anything dealing with the subconscious is going to be a bitch to predict. I would think you’d only be able to see that it’s acting, not how it’s going to act. (But the brain is not my specialty, so I could easily be wrong. This is just what I would expect.)

BhacSsylan's avatar

@nikipedia Well, I took her to mean whether or not we are totally deterministic. As in, is our consciousness something we can control regardless of the inputs being fed into it. Totally deterministic would be that we’re robots, and that given enough time, a scientist would be able to determine every choice we make, because it’s only inputs being fed through extremely sophisticated algorithms.

If that’s the question, i agree totally with pdworkin. Just because they can say that 6 seconds before only means that the brain decides six seconds before the action of pressing the button took place, and has no bearing on consciousness. Everything up to that period is still possible to be non-deterministic

As to what you’re responding to, nikipedia, I agree the idea of an external consciousness is silly. Of course, I’m also a naturalist, so that would be expected.

dpworkin's avatar

Anyway, are you sure it wasn’t 0.6 seconds?

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

I don’t see a difference. Consciousness is a result of neural processes. The problem with predicting a person’s decisions is that you can never perfectly weight the options. I can predict 10 years in advance that if I hold a gun to your head and give you the choice of my next move you will choose to live. Precluding this possibility, you cannot predict a decision before it is made with accuracy, so the scientists may have just reacted to the decision being made 6 seconds faster.

wundayatta's avatar

I’m not sure how consciousness is being defined here. I’m choosing to think of it as conscious awareness. I believe we have more than one kind of thinking. Some of our thinking takes place in places where we can not directly perceive the thinking. In other cases, we are aware of the thinking going on. So I can see some choices being made in areas of our minds that we can not directly perceive.

dpworkin's avatar

Is the Unconscious a place? (Forbidden Planet was on TV today)

NewZen's avatar

Do you mean the big brain or…?

A mother walks into the bathroom as her 5 year old, in the bath, holds his testicles. “Mommy, are these my brains?” Not yet, son, not yet.

But seriously, do men really think, like, at all, when there is a woman around?

RedPowerLady's avatar

What types of decisions were in the study?

Thammuz's avatar

I don’t see a reason to assume differently, choice is something predictable. EVEN assuming free will, we have a character, which is a set of guidelines along which we make decisons. Furthermore there is no reason to think there really s such thing as free will.

nebule's avatar

@pdworkin in this specific case he states, ‘up to 6 seconds before you make up your mind we can predict which decision you are going to make’

@RedPowerLady I’m not entirely sure, but he has to decide to press either the button in his left hand or the button in his right hand..

@daloon hmmm might need a whole other question to define consciousness but lets say the subjective experience of awareness..and in this case therefore the awareness of your decision being made

@FireMadeFlesh I’m pretty sure when they are using the term prediction it is being used in a deterministic sense that they do know if ‘x’ happens then ‘y’ will always happen and therefore they can accurately predict ‘y’. Here ‘x’ happens in the brain 6 seconds before the conscious decision and action ‘y’ occurs….

The point is…that neural processes are going on that will inevitably result in certain outcomes and which are present before you are consciously aware of them… We think we make the decision to press the left button but something has already happened before we do it (the moment of the absolute decision)..up to that point one could argue that one could still change ones mind… but this study shows that this is not the case…

dpworkin's avatar

And this is dualistic how?

nebule's avatar

I wasn’t presuming it was dualistic…

dpworkin's avatar

I quote from your OP “Does this mean that we are indeed just a kind of advanced robot that has given rise to a conceptual superfluous consciousness?”

nebule's avatar

…which to me doesn’t necessarily mean that consciousness is different in substance to the brain. Consciousness can still be conceptually superfluous without having to be ethereal can’t it?

RedPowerLady's avatar

@lynneblundell In that case I don’t think it is a matter of consciousness at all. It seems to me they aren’t predicting your decision but your action.

Shuttle128's avatar

@RedPowerLady What this is implying is that decisions are actions necessarily following from initial conditions in the brain. It shows that “conscious” decisions are predetermined even if the subject believes they have free will in choosing.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@Shuttle128 I don’t see how it shows that correlation. It seems to me that a well trained researcher could read body language to determine which button one would push before they push it. I don’t see how that shows 1) that they have figured it out before the person decided to push it. 2) how this has implications to more complicated decision making. 3) how this has any correlation to consciousness in general. Perhaps I should read more about this? Or perhaps I’m just confused about what the assertion actually is?

Shuttle128's avatar

@RedPowerLady I believe I’ve heard of this study before, or at least one similar one. In this study they asked the subject approximately when they decided to push the button. This leads to your question of how this correlates to consciousness. If a person believes they decided at a certain point in time, yet the evidence shows that the outcome was inevitable before the person believes they decided, then either: 1) the brain is deterministic and the key initial conditions of the decision process are analyzed to predict the outcome, or 2) the conscious decision that the subject experiences is merely a replay of the previously freely determined subconscious decision that was observed by the scientists.

The ability to predict simple decisions have few implications of the possibility of predicting more complicated decisions; however, it implies a certain structure of decisions that might very well underpin all types of decision making.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@lynneblundell What happens when a person must make rapid decisions and responses, such as an emergency surgeon when a patient is seconds from death? They call for a myriad of instruments, depending on the stage of the surgery and possible complicating factors, and decide how, where and if to perform a life saving procedure. I am quite certain that if each decision took six seconds then the patient would be dead before the third decision, while the surgeon must make dozens.

Shuttle128's avatar

@lynneblundell These are very different decision types. One is a conscious “free will” type decision, the other is a quick reaction to various inputs based on previous experience. This study tells us very little about the latter type of decisions, though we can expect that it is highly determinant since the outcomes are heavily based on previous experience.

RedPowerLady's avatar

@Shuttle128 Thank you for clarifying. That was quite informative.

nebule's avatar

hmmmm…yes…thanks to @Shuttle128… The six seconds are specific to this case and experiment..I’m pretty sure there needs to be more detailed investigation into other split second decision making processes… but that leads me to think that it’s only a question of the length of time it takes to make a decision..the process surely still works the same…only quicker in the case of the surgeon..

I don’t know…I thought it was interesting anyway…

dpworkin's avatar

I’m still confused as to how you can distinguish the “brain” from “consciousness” in the wording of your question, yet deny that this is a question about dualism.

nebule's avatar

@pdworkin In response to your initial query I wasn’t saying it wasn’t a question that involved the idea of dualism..(if you wish to explore that side of it then do so…or…don’t…) I was saying that we didn’t have to approach the question from a dualistic perspective.

I can understand how one would presume that consciousness as stated in the question might suggest that I am coming from a dualistic perspective but that wasn’t intentional. The fact is we don’t know what consciousness is exactly… hence the contrast. If you still have a problem with my question, if you would like to suggest a rewording of it, I’m open to criticism..obviously

CMaz's avatar

A chemical and electrical action occurs in the brain.
That translates into thought. Thought turning into reaction.

Action reaction. That is pretty much it.

Coloma's avatar

‘Consciousness’ is right action ( universal consciousness, God ) flowing through a mind absent of all thought.

Pure consciousness and thought are mutually exclusive. ;-)

Tequilamockingbyrd's avatar

Just from this alone, it implies to me that your set of mind gears your brain in a certain direction so that it will save time in making decisions accordingly, and that consciousness is an afterthought. Maybe the electrical activity six seconds before is the subconscious brain predicting the most likely outcome as a result of your physical self, as an animal, reacting to the environment, then it happens, then your aware. Maybe that’s why some people have a hard time changing certain behaviors as habits, when the mind is already predisposed, trying to get out of a loop. If that is the case, just imagine how this could really help people. The guy almost getting hit by a taxi tells me that the brain predicted that outcome, and his brain went in hyper mode because that is how fast it needed to happen for him to survive,(all less than six seconds?) and it made me wonder if that scenario could of been taken a little bit farther. What would the brain, subconscious, decide to do if stimulated by something unexpected and random where the predictive factors would be varied? Most likely, the same guy would of been hit if he was walking through a park where there is no roads for any kind of traffic, no indicators for his brain to set up. So decisions have more to do with your set of mind at the moment and your environment, which makes sense. So then, if you were pretty good at manipulating the environment, you could somehow “gear” people in making certain decisions, and if your really good, it will look like “free will”, all by talking to their subconscious. Muahahahaha

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