A new study has found that people make immediate judgments about images they are shown — which could have an impact on their decisions — even before their brains have had time to consciously process the information.
The study shows it is possible to predict abstract judgments from brain waves, even though people are not conscious of making such judgments, according to researchers at the University of Melbourne.
During the study, researchers could predict from the participants’ brain activity how exciting they found a particular image to be, and whether a particular image made them think more about the future or the present. This is true even though the brain activity was recorded before participants knew they were going to be asked to make these judgments, the researchers explained.
The study’s findings illustrate that there is more information encoded in our brain activity than previously assumed, according to Dr. Stefan Bode from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences and Dr. Carsten Murawski from the University of Melbourne Department of Finance.
“We have found that brain activity when looking at images can encode judgments such as time reference, even when the viewer is not aware of making such judgments,” the researchers said in their study, which was published in PLOS One.
“Moreover, our results suggest that certain images can prompt a person to think about the present or the future.”
The researchers said the study’s findings contribute to our understanding of impulsive behaviors, especially when those behaviors were caused by “prompts” in the world around us.
“For instance, consider someone trying to quit gambling who sees a gambling advertisement on TV,” the researchers said. “Our results suggest that even if this person is trying to ignore the ad, their brain may be unconsciously processing it and making it more likely that they will relapse.”
For the study, researchers used electroencephalography technology (EEG) to measure the electrical activity of people’s brains while they looked at pictures of food, social scenes, or status symbols like cars and money.
After the EEG, the researchers showed the participants the same pictures again and asked questions about each image, such as how exciting they thought the image was or how strongly the image made them think of either the present or the future.
A statistical “decoding” technique was then used to predict the judgments participants made about each of the pictures from the EEG brain activity that was recorded, the researchers explained.
Co-author Daniel Bennett noted that just as certain prompts might cause impulsive behavior, images could be used to prompt people to be more patient by regulating impulse control.
“Our results suggest that prompting people with images related to the future might cause processing outside awareness that could make it easier to think about the future,” he said.
“In theory, this could make people less impulsive and more likely to make healthy long-term decisions. These are hypotheses we will try to test in the future.”
Source: University of Melbourne