UCL research: are we as decisive as we think?

11 February 2009

The underlying sense of being in control of our own actions is challenged by new research from the UCL Institute of Neurology and the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neurosocience, which demonstrates that the choices we make internally are weak and easily overridden compared to when we are told which choice to make.

Internal choices are weaker than those dictated by the outside world

The research, which is published today in ‘Cerebral Cortex’, is one of the first neuroscientific studies to look at changing one’s mind in situations where the initial decision was one’s own ‘free choice’. Free choices can be defined as actions occurring when external cues are largely absent – for example, deciding which dish to choose from a restaurant menu.

First author Stephen Fleming (UCL Institute of Neurology), said: “When people had chosen for themselves which action to make, we found that the brain activity involved in changing one’s mind, or reprogramming these ‘free’ choices was weak, relative to reprogramming of choices that were dictated by an external stimulus. This suggests that the brain is very flexible when changing a free choice – rather like a spinning coin, a small nudge can push it one way or the other very easily.

“The implication is that, despite our feelings of being in control, our own internal choices are flexible compared to those driven by external stimuli, such as a braking in response to a traffic light. This flexibility might be important - in a dynamic world, we need to be able to change our plans when necessary.”

To find out more, follow the links at the top of this article.

 

UCL Context

The UCL Institute of Neurology is a specialist postgraduate institute of UCL. The institute is closely associated in its work with the National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery, UCL Hospitals’ NHS Foundation Trust, and in combination they form a national and international centre at Queen Square for teaching, training and research in neurology and allied clinical and basic neurosciences.

The UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary research institute, bringing together different disciplines (such as psychology, neurology, anatomy) with common interests in the human mind and brain, in both health and disease. The institute has over 120 staff, including a vibrant body of postdoctoral and postgraduate (PhD) researchers, plus clinical fellows, organised into distinct research groups. It runs regular seminars, receives many grants for its research, and produces numerous scientific publications.

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