By Margarita Nahapetyan
According to psychologists, our instincts and intuition are more reliable in a decision making, than our conscious brain. A new study conducted at Northwestern University offers precise electrophysiological evidence that such decisions may not be a guesswork at all.
Human brain can recognize and process things that are not consciously being retrieved from the memory. Very often people have the vague feeling of knowing something without having any memory of learning it before, such as getting dressed in the morning, or eating breakfast. This phenomenon is commonly known as a "gut feeling" or "intuition," also described as implicit or unconscious recognition memory. People automatically do those things because they are routine procedures that are a part of the implicit memory.
"Unconscious memory may come into play, for example, in recognizing the face of a perpetrator of a crime or the correct answer on a test. Or the choice from a horde of consumer products may be driven by memories that are quite alive on an unconscious level," explained Professor Ken Paller, of Northwestern's Psychology Department. Such memory can influence peoples actions without ever entering into conscious awareness, while explicit memory involves active and conscious memory retrieval.
While experts agree in general that routine tasks are part of implicit memory, they are not that sure about visual recognition. While it is true that a person must consciously try to remember whether he has seen something or someone before, it might be possible for one's subconscious to help figure out things without even knowing about them, with the help of intuition or just some lucky guess that has originated in an implicit memory. With all this in mind, neuroscientists decided to determine if implicit memory can direct explicit memory and visual recognition and, in case of a positive answer, to figure out how does it happen.
In the study, 12 volunteer student participants were asked to focus on colorful kaleidoscope images that appeared on a computer screen. They devoted their full attention to viewing half of the colors, trying to memorize them. Later, all of them were distracted by the request to also remember spoken numbers, which made it harder to memorize both. On every trial they had to listen to a new number and press a button to indicate whether the previous one was odd or even. In particular, the participants had to focus on memorizing half of the images but were greatly distracted from memorizing the others.
The results turned out to be very interesting. The scientists found that in spite of a close attention during the image studying process, all volunteers were much more precise and accurate with their guesses rather than with their confident answers. Guesses by distracted participants, however, were much more accurate compared to those who were not distracted, which leads to the conclusion that the brain was storing information even more efficiently when the participants were not that attentive. Psychologists believe that correct guesses were the result of implicit memory and have nothing to do with explicit memory.
The study suggests that we should not count on conscious memory only, concluded Paller. "It suggests that we also need to develop our intuitive nature and creativity. Intuition may have an important role in finding answers to all sorts of problems in everyday life - including big ones such as our ailing economy."