Brain Decides, Then Tells You Later


Understanding how events occur in the brain – how we come to an “aha!” insight, how we make a decision, and so on – fascinates neuroscientists. And anyone interested in neuromarketing can’t help but wonder how we decide between two products, or whether to buy a product at all. And, since we like to believe we are thinking beings, just how rational are those decisions? New research, conducted by by Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths’ College in London and Bhavin Sheth at the University of Houston and soon to be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, looks at how our brains solve problems. Interestingly, it seems that our brain solves the problem many seconds before we become consciously aware of the solution! The experimenters gave subjects a problem to solve while monitoring their brain activity using an EEG cap:

Some people worked it out; others did not. The significant point, though, was that the EEG predicted who would fall where. Those volunteers who went on to have an insight… had had different brainwave activity from those who never got it. In the right frontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with shifting mental states, there was an increase in high-frequency gamma waves (those with 47-48 cycles a second). Moreover, the difference was noticeable up to eight seconds before the volunteer realised he had found the solution. Dr Sheth thinks this may be capturing the “transformational thought” (the light-bulb moment, as it were) in action, before the brain’s “owner” is consciously aware of it. [Emphasis added. From The Economist – Incognito – Evidence mounts that brains decide before their owners know about it

That a great deal of our thought process isn’t conscious isn’t big news. Estimates vary as to the percentage of subconscious activity in our brains, but one common estimate is 95%. And it’s not just problem solving – the article notes that decision-making happens subconsciously before we are aware of it:

In the 1980s Benjamin Libet of the University of California, San Francisco, showed that simple decisions, such as when to move a finger, are made about three-tenths of a second before the brain’s owner is aware of them, and subsequent work has found that the roots of such decisions can be seen up to ten seconds before they become conscious.

What should marketers take away from this research? For one, marketers should be very suspicious of market research that claims to uncover the “why” behind a decision, such as “Why did you buy that Budweiser?” This isn’t big news, but the research underscores why it might be difficult or impossible for a consumer to explain the thought process behind a purchase (since most of that process occurred subconsciously).

I certainly wouldn’t say this body of research somehow invalidates our free will or denies our cognitive abilities in solving problems or making decisions. Rather, it illustrates the complexity of these processes and indicates that factors other than the ones we consciously thought about may well play an important role in the ultimate solution or decision. Branding is one such factor – few of us would say we chose a product because of an emotional tie to the brand, but the reality is often different.

  1. Daniel Edlen says

    I’m confused. I thought that thought was defined as consciousness. The process of the brain is the process of consciousness, no? I think this is more pointing out a processing lag/delay in those moments, a la the transfer from RAM to the processor to the physical output on a screen. This seems to be a play on semantics rather than anything actionable.


  2. Sandy says

    It was interesting to get confirmation of something that I can actually feel when it’s happening. When I’m working out a complex problem, I can feel that moment when my brain has solved it – even though I don’t “see” the image of the solution in my mind’s eye until a few seconds later. It is a distinct sensation that I’ve never been able to describe, but reading this article made me go “YES!”

  3. David Stevens says

    As I recall, when Libet’s data hit, the dialogue spiraled into a debate on free will (ie, the lack thereof).

    It really does make one pause to think (wait, my brain already “thought” that before I became conscious of the thought — even before I assumed authorship of the thought!)

    This REALLY makes me wonder about rhetoric and how this unconscious thing inside us making decisions deems what is or isn’t compelling. Are there universal rules at work we’re not, ahem, conscious of? Powerful stuff.

  4. Richard Shaffer says

    It sounds like our brains make decisions before we do! And rarely tells us why it chose like it did! Fascinating!

    What is the scientific/evolutionary reason humans seek to have “reasons” for everything?


  5. Franis Engel says

    As an Alexander Technique teacher, I have come to think of people having a combination of rehearsed skills and unintended programs that were accidentally trained while purposefully learning skills. Our sum total of what we know as adults has become largely routine in most people. Since the habits are designed to become innate, these actions are now buried from sensory view and go into action automatically, without the person having to be aware of them. It seems to be a surprise in this article that soon as you think of doing something, you are already preparing to do it!!

    It is a skill that needs to be practiced, but people can learn to have power to “veto” these decisions. Veto power is possible a moment before the decision that is being prepared for truly goes into action.

    Various means are useful to reveal unnecessary habits, but then you must decide what to do about their existence. That’s what Alexander Technique is valuable for – it’s one way out of the coerciveness of conditioned responses. A.T. been teaching this information gleaned from empirical observation since the 1930s in the performing arts field.

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