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Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain.

Nature neuroscience

physiology, Brain Mapping, Choice Behavior, Cognition, Consciousness, Decision Making, Humans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Nerve Net, Unconscious (Psychology), Neural Pathways, Neuropsychological Tests, Parietal Lobe, Photic Stimulation, Prefrontal Cortex, Psychomotor Performance, Reaction Time, Time Factors, Brain

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      Abstract

      There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively 'free' decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.

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      Most cited references 14

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      Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy.

      Deciding advantageously in a complex situation is thought to require overt reasoning on declarative knowledge, namely, on facts pertaining to premises, options for action, and outcomes of actions that embody the pertinent previous experience. An alternative possibility was investigated: that overt reasoning is preceded by a nonconscious biasing step that uses neural systems other than those that support declarative knowledge. Normal participants and patients with prefrontal damage and decision-making defects performed a gambling task in which behavioral, psychophysiological, and self-account measures were obtained in parallel. Normals began to choose advantageously before they realized which strategy worked best, whereas prefrontal patients continued to choose disadvantageously even after they knew the correct strategy. Moreover, normals began to generate anticipatory skin conductance responses (SCRs) whenever they pondered a choice that turned out to be risky, before they knew explicitly that it was a risky choice, whereas patients never developed anticipatory SCRs, although some eventually realized which choices were risky. The results suggest that, in normal individuals, nonconscious biases guide behavior before conscious knowledge does. Without the help of such biases, overt knowledge may be insufficient to ensure advantageous behavior.
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        Decoding mental states from brain activity in humans.

        Recent advances in human neuroimaging have shown that it is possible to accurately decode a person's conscious experience based only on non-invasive measurements of their brain activity. Such 'brain reading' has mostly been studied in the domain of visual perception, where it helps reveal the way in which individual experiences are encoded in the human brain. The same approach can also be extended to other types of mental state, such as covert attitudes and lie detection. Such applications raise important ethical issues concerning the privacy of personal thought.
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          The role of the anterior prefrontal cortex in human cognition.

          Complex problem-solving and planning involve the most anterior part of the frontal lobes including the fronto-polar prefrontal cortex (FPPC), which is especially well developed in humans compared with other primates. The specific role of this region in human cognition, however, is poorly understood. Here we show, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, that bilateral regions in the FPPC alone are selectively activated when subjects have to keep in mind a main goal while performing concurrent (sub)goals. Neither keeping in mind a goal over time (working memory) nor successively allocating attentional resources between alternative goals (dual-task performance) could by themselves activate these regions. Our results indicate that the FPPC selectively mediates the human ability to hold in mind goals while exploring and processing secondary goals, a process generally required in planning and reasoning.
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            Author and article information

            Journal
            18408715
            10.1038/nn.2112

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