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You Don't Really Control Your Brain a Lot: Study

Update Date: Sep 29, 2012 03:43 AM EDT
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A new report suggests that most of the tasks performed by us everyday are not even noticed by us and that the brain takes so many decisions for us, we don't even realize it.

For example, when we perform a task as simple as picking up our cup of morning coffee, we do not even realize, but in a short fraction of time, our brain takes so many complex decisions for us like deciding how to aim our hand, grasp the handle and raise the cup to our mouth, all without spilling the contents of the cup.

The study by researchers from Northwestern University reveals that not only does the brain handle such complex decisions for us, it also hides information about how these decisions are made.

"Our study gives a salient example," said Yangqing 'Lucie' Xu, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in psychology at Northwestern, according to Medical Xpress. "When you pick up an object, your brain automatically decides how to control your muscles based on what your eyes provide about the object's shape. When you pick up a mug by the handle with your right hand, you need to add a clockwise twist to your grip to compensate for the extra weight that you see on the left side of the mug."

"We showed that the use of this visual information is so powerful and automatic that we cannot turn it off. When people see an object weighted in one direction, they actually can't help but 'feel' the weight in that direction, even when they know that we're tricking them," Xu said.

For the study, the researchers conducted two experiments. In the first experiment, participants of the study were asked to hold a vertical stick with a weight hanging from its left or right side. Participants were able to easily report, as to which side of the stick they thought was heavier, even with their eyes closed.

Next, the researchers used a set of mirrors to occasionally flip the view of the object so that it looked like the weight was on the left, when actually it was on the right. And although people were told to report on which side they felt the weight (with their hands), the visual image strongly influenced the direction that they felt the weight was coming from, especially when the weights were lighter, Medical Xpress reported.

In the second experiment, even though the researchers tried hard to convince people to ignore the visual information by carefully explaining the nature of the "trick," they still failed to ignore the visual information.

"People still could not ignore the visual information," said Xu. "In fact, the effect even works on us, and we designed the experiment!"

"These decisions are usually smart and based on vast experience," Steven Franconeri, co-author of the study and associate professor of cognitive psychology at Northwestern, said. "In this study's example, your brain is automatically using visual information to tell your hands what they are feeling. We can show that these decisions are happening by manipulating the information your brain receives-we mirror-reverse the visual information and your brain now tells your hands that they are feeling the reverse of what they are actually feeling. This inference is mandatory-you feel it even if you know it's not true."

"In the vast majority of cases, you want to 'delegate' decisions like this to the unconscious parts of your brain, leaving you free to focus on less straightforward problems, like following driving directions or enjoying your cup of coffee," Franconeri added.

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