Big Decision Ahead? Let Your Subconscious Choose

New research shows that our brains continue solving problems subconsciously when we turn our attention to something else.

The more we learn about our brains, the more we find that they work better without our input.

In fact, a great deal of human behavior stems from our subconscious mind. Research into the subconscious has found that it helps to initiate goal-orientated behavior, creativity, insight, memory consolidation, and decision making.

The funny thing about your brain, as researchers from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) recently discovered, is that it’ll keep solving a problem for you while you do something else. In fact, giving your subconscious time to work makes for better decisions.

For most people, picking a new apartment or car is a complicated process fraught with countless unknowns: if you can afford it, if you’ll get your money’s worth, and if the timing is right.

To see how much influence your subconscious has on this type of decision-making, a research team at Carnegie Mellon enlisted 27 healthy adults to undergo brain-imaging scans during mental testing.

The subjects were given information about cars and other items while connected to a magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, machine[1]. Before they were allowed to make a decision, they had to memorize a sequence of numbers. Researchers did this to prevent the subjects from actively thinking about the cars.

The brain scans showed that while test subjects were learning about the cars and other items, the visual and prefrontal cortices—the parts of the brain responsible for decision-making and learning—were working as usual.

The surprising part—which researchers say provides the first insight into the way the brain unconsciously processes information—is that these same areas remained active during the number memorization task.

For lack of a better analogy, it’s like when your phone downloads a song while you send a text message. Your phone is focusing on the new information (the text), while it processes something more complicated at the same time.

Even with the memorization distraction, researchers found that allowing the brain to unconsciously process information leads to more clear-headed decisions. Those whose brains showed the most continuing activity during the memory task were more likely to choose the “best” car in the set.

“This research begins to chip away at the mystery of our unconscious brains and decision-making,” J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology at CMU, said in a press release. “It shows that brain regions important for decision-making remain active even while our brains may be simultaneously engaged in unrelated tasks, such as thinking about a math problem. What’s most intriguing about this finding is that participants did not have any awareness that their brains were still working on the decision problem while they were engaged in an unrelated task.”

The research was published in the latest issue of the Oxford Journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience[2].

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