signals [of brain behavior leading up to the moment of conscious decision] that let them know when the students had decided to move 10 seconds or so before the students knew it themselves. About 70% of the time, the researchers could also predict which button the students would push.
Other researchers have shown similar predictive power from observing brain activity right before experiment participants verbalized their decision. They also found that different brain regions are involved during the preparation and the execution of a task. Already in the early 1980s, research was published that indicated that brain activity clearly preceded a conscious activity suggestion that an unconscious decision had been made before it became conscious.
Robert Lee Hotz, the WSJ science journalist, summarizes the implications of this research:
Such experiments suggest that our best reasons for some choices we make are understood only by our cells. The findings lend credence to researchers who argue that many important decisions may be best made by going with our gut — not by thinking about them too much.
Wilson, for example, talks about letting the adaptive unconscious make decisions for us (p. 172):
The point is that we should not analyze the information in an overly deliberate, conscious manner, constantly making explicit lists of pluses and minuses. We should let our adaptive unconscious do the job of forming reliable feelings and then trust those feelings, even if we cannot explain them entirely.
Interestingly, the neuroscientists maintain that this does not preclude free will. Somehow because we’re studying how we think gives us free will. Hotz puts it this way:
All this work to deconstruct the mental machinery of choice may be the best evidence of conscious free will. By measuring the brain’s physical processes, the mind seeks to know itself through its reflection in the mirror of science.
“We are trying to understand who we are,” said Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, “by studying the organ that allows you to understand who you are.”
People have this strange antipathy for evolution and for materialism. They think that if evolution is true, then they’re just animals or automatons — that they won’t have freedom and they won’t have responsibility, and life will have no meaning. […] On the contrary, it’s only when you understand life from an evolutionary point of view that you understand what our freedom really is. You realize that it’s real. It’s different and better than the freedom of other animals, but it’s evolved. It’s not supernatural.
The role of the adaptive unconscious is to help us make decisions, to sort through the millions of pieces of information we are absorbing constantly. Then we can use our freedom to make better decisions: We can consciously intervene in the unconscious decision process, though sometimes that leads to ineffective decisions, or we can decide to learn to utilize the process better in a manner similar to what Wilson suggested. Either way, we’re free to decide.
(Hat tip to Butterflies and Wheels for the link to the WSJ article).