Zombie Wiring: Retrofitting the Brain

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Interesting article by Matthew Hutson on the Daily News We are zombies rewriting our mental history to feel in control:

Bad news for believers in clairvoyance. Our brains appear to rewrite history so that the choices we make after an event seem to precede it. In other words, we add loops to our mental timeline that let us feel we can predict things that in reality have already happened.

Adam Bear and Paul Bloom at Yale University conducted some simple tests on volunteers. In one experiment, subjects looked at white circles and silently guessed which one would turn red. Once one circle had changed colour, they reported whether or not they had predicted correctly.

Over many trials, their reported accuracy was significantly better than the 20 per cent expected by chance, indicating that the volunteers either had psychic abilities or had unwittingly played a mental trick on themselves.

The researchers’ study design helped explain what was really going on. They placed different delays between the white circles’ appearance and one of the circles turning red, ranging from 50 milliseconds to one second. Participants’ reported accuracy was highest – surpassing 30 per cent – when the delays were shortest.

That’s what you would expect if the appearance of the red circle was actually influencing decisions still in progress. This suggests it’s unlikely that the subjects were merely lying about their predictive abilities to impress the researchers.

The mechanism behind this behaviour is still unclear. It’s possible, the researchers suggest, that we perceive the order of events correctly – one circle changes colour before we have actually made our prediction – but then we subconsciously swap the sequence in our memories so the prediction seems to come first. Such a switcheroo could be motivated by a desire to feel in control of our lives.

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