Highlights - March 2013

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Now, let's take a look at the most important research findings from various fields of study.

New brain-imaging research from Carnegie Mellon University, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, finds that the brain regions responsible for making decisions continue to be active even when the conscious brain is distracted with a different task.

This research provides some of the first evidence demonstrating how the brain unconsciously processes decision information in ways that lead to improved decision-making. It chips away at the mystery of our unconscious brains and the decision-making process.

The study presented 27 healthy adults with information about cars and other items while undergoing neuro-imaging. Then, before being asked to make decisions about the items, the participants had to complete a difficult "distractor task," which involved memorizing sequences of numbers. This prevented them from consciously thinking about the decision information.

The study led to three main findings:

  1. First, a brief period of distraction led to higher-quality decisions about the cars and other items.
  2. Second, the brain continues to process decision information unconsciously during this distraction period. How do the researchers know? Because, when the participants were initially learning information about the cars and other items, the neuro-imaging results showed activation in the visual and prefrontal cortices, known to be responsible for learning and decision-making. Then, during the "distractor task," both the visual and prefrontal cortices continued to be active — or reactivated — even though the brain was consciously focused on number memorization.
  3. Third, the results showed that the amount of reactivation within the visual and prefrontal cortices during the "distractor task" predicted the degree to which participants made better decisions, such as picking the best car in the set.

What's most intriguing about this finding is that participants did not have any awareness that their brains were still working on the decision problem while they were engaged in an unrelated task.

What's the bottom line? We all face difficult problems we need to solve on a regular...

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