Our unconscious brain always knows what’s best for us

December 26th, 2008 - 11:54 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, Dec 26 (IANS) If left to itself, our unconscious brain unerringly knows what’s best for us, on the basis of available information. “You don’t consciously decide to stop at a red light or steer around an obstacle in the road,” said Alex Pouget, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.

“Once we started looking at the decisions our brains make without our knowledge, we found that they almost always reach the right decision, given the information they had to work with,” he added.

Researchers 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.

Neuroscientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky received the 2002 Nobel Prize for Medicine for their 1979 research that argued humans rarely make rational decisions. Since then, this has become conventional wisdom among cognition researchers.

Contrary to Kahnneman and Tversky’s research, Pouget has shown that people do indeed make optimal decisions - but only when their unconscious brain makes the choice, said a Rochester release. His findings have been published in the journal Neuron.

“A lot of the early work in this field was on conscious decision making, but most of the decisions you make aren’t based on conscious reasoning,” said Pouget.

Pouget says that Kahneman’s approach was to tell a subject that there was a certain percent chance that one of two choices in a test was “right”. This meant a person had to consciously compute the percentages to get a right answer - something few people could do accurately.

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 “realised” suddenly that the dots were moving in one direction or another.

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