New evidence supports theory that we don't make decisions consciously

October 9, 2022

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New evidence supports theory that we don't make decisions consciously

No matter how much evidence science brings to refute the idea of conscious free-will policymakers, politicians, managements and leaders—not to mention the general public—still cling to the idea that we somehow “consciously” make up our mind about things. We feel we can somehow objectively weigh the pros and cons of a decision and arrive at a rational conclusion.

But what do we mean by “conscious decision-making?” Or even, for that matter, consciousness?

In scientific terms, consciousness is your awareness of yourself and the world around you. This awareness is subjective and unique to you. Virtually all animals have a consciousness. A battery hen, for example, is aware of her abysmal surroundings and her place in them.

Medical researchers have now developed a new theory of consciousness, explaining why it developed, what it is good for, which disorders affect it, and why dieting (and resisting other urges) is so difficult.

What the researchers say: “In a nutshell, our theory is that consciousness developed as a memory system that is used by our unconscious brain to help us flexibly and creatively imagine the future and plan accordingly,” explained the lead author. “What is completely new about this theory is that it suggests we don’t perceive the world, make decisions, or perform actions directly. Instead, we do all these things unconsciously and then—about half a second later—consciously remember doing them.”

He explained that the researchers developed this theory to explain a series of phenomena that could not be easily understood with prior theories of consciousness.

“We knew that conscious processes were simply too slow to be actively involved in music, sports, and other activities where split-second reflexes are required. But if consciousness is not involved in such processes, then a better explanation of what consciousness does was needed,” the scientists said.

According to them, this theory is important because it explains that all our decisions and actions are actually made unconsciously, although we fool ourselves into believing that we consciously made them. So, we can say to ourselves, we’re just going to have one spoonful of ice cream and, the next thing we know, the container is empty—because our conscious mind is not controlling our actions. “Even our thoughts are not generally under our conscious control. This lack of control is why we may have difficulty stopping a stream of thoughts running through our head as we’re trying to go to sleep, and also why mindfulness is hard,” they added.

The researchers consider a number of neurologic, psychiatric, and developmental disorders to be disorders of consciousness including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, delirium, migraine, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, certain types of autism and more.

Lastly, their paper provides a roadmap as to how clinicians, educators and individuals can best improve behavior and gain knowledge, by using clinical and teaching methods that can be effective in shaping both the conscious mind and the unconscious brain. With further exploration, this work may allow patients to improve problem behaviors such as overeating, help us understand the ways in which brain structures support memory, and even provide further insight into philosophical issues around free will and moral responsibility.

The findings appear online in the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology.

So, what? I told you so! Often!

Given the various neurological, biological, contextual and experiential conditions surrounding any decision it has always seemed to me that in order for humans to have survived “in the wild” decisions had to be an automatic and unconscious process of collecting data and acting on that accumulated data. Conscious decision making would simply take too long for survival.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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