Tag Archives: Carnegie Mellon University

The Unconscious Brain's Decision-Making Process

-Emily Fraysse

The science of the brain can be a rather daunting and intimidating area of study. When a person is in a difficult situation or faced with a major decision, and has the luxury of time, a common response is to “sleep on it.” This break from thinking about a problem can be a more rewarding decision than many have previously thought.

Extensive research from Carnegie Mellon University found that the brain regions that are responsible for making decisions are continuously active even when the conscious brain is distracted with a different task. CMU graduate James K. Bursley and Northeastern University’s Ajay B. Satpute took twenty-seven healthy adults and gave them information about cars and other items while undergoing neuroimaging. Before they were asked to make decisions about the items they had just seen, they were handed a different task like memorizing sequences of numbers. The participants would not think consciously about the decision information.

The results confirmed that a distraction, even one only two minutes long, produced higher quality decisions about the cars and other items. But a new question arose: does the distraction allow for the brain to take a break from the decision-making and then return to it after the distraction is finished? Or does the brain continue to unconsciously think about the decision regardless of distractions?

Thanks to neuroimaging, the brain showed that it was unconsciously focused on making the decision, as the visual and prefrontal cortices, which are responsible for decision-making, were active. Another study in 2012 at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences showed how, thanks to functional MRI scans, brain patterns showed a person’s decision seven seconds before they actually “decided.” John-Dylan Haynes, one of the Max Planck Institute neuroscientists, explained that, “Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.”

For more information, watch the Carnegie Mellon University students explaining their research and findings and a video describing the Max Planck Institute research.