Unlocking the secret to changing our minds

| October 13, 2019

You’re sitting in a meeting and start to feel your stomach rumble. You reach for a muffin but stop when you realise that there’s only one left and your manager is watching. In that moment, you make the decision to go hungry.

But what happened in your brain in the split second where you changed your mind?

Being able to quickly change your mind in response to new information can be a matter of life or death. 

A new study from the University of Melbourne and the University College London (UCL) has investigated how our brains integrate new information to allow us to change our final decisions.

The research, which tracked the neural patterns that give us the flexibility to change our minds, could help us understand why some people suffer from dysfunctional decision-making.

In turn, being able to recognise the neural patterns behind these change-of-mind scenarios could enhance existing brain-computer interfaces, allowing people suffering paralysis to better communicate by interpreting the neural activity in their brains.

Understanding how we change our minds may also be the secret to more advanced artificial intelligence (AI) enabling machines to replicate how our brains work.

The results of the study, published in the Journal Cerebral Cortex, were led by Dr Anne Löffler, then a visiting PhD student from Professor Patrick Haggard’s lab at UCL.

Dr Löffler spent several months in Associate Professor Stefan Bode’s Decision Neuroscience Laboratory at the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences’, in which the researchers were able to identify the neural activity present at that crucial moment we recalculate our decisions and change our minds.

Being able to quickly change your mind is a critical ability.

“The fact that we are not locked into one decision is super important for survival,” says Associate Professor Bode. “When you step out onto the street and realise there’s a car, it is dire that you have the ability to quickly change your mind and step back.”

Researchers can recognise the neural patterns behind change-of-mind scenarios. 

“Changing your decisions on the go like this is one of the most important things we are capable of doing, and it involves having to integrate information very fast.

“If you make the wrong choice, you could lose your life.”

In the study, 25 participants were monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as they made a series of simple choices to either maintain their initial decision or change their mind.

The neuroimaging technique measures changes in local blood oxygenation in the brain, which is used to index brain activity during the task.

In the first stage of the trial, subjects were required to freely choose between two simple on-screen objects. This was followed by a short simulation which asked them to slowly move an on-screen avatar in the direction of their chosen object to win a small amount of money.

As they got closer to their goal, the images would sometimes change position and the chosen object would suddenly be far away, with the other much closer to the position of the avatar.

In this moment, the participants were faced with a decision: slowly try and get back to their original choice and lose time, or change their mind and move towards the closer, more achievable alternative, but which only gave them a smaller reward.

As participants sometimes changed their mind, local patterns of brain activity were analysed to ‘read-out’ their decisions. Change-of-mind predictive activity was found in several brain regions, including lateral and medial regions of the prefrontal cortex, at the front of the brain.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) can highlight brain activity by monitoring changes in blood oxygenation. 

While the involvement of these regions of the brain lasted only a few seconds, these changes-of-mind demonstrated how different pieces of information were ‘kept active’ and integrated within these regions in the prefrontal cortex.

The more we understand the patterns of our thoughts, the more likely it becomes that we will be able to ultimately decode complex brain activity, potentially allowing specialised computers to read our minds through brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), says Associate Professor Bode.

“Such approaches might be used one day to communicate with patients who cannot tell us what they are thinking, like patients suffering some form of paralysis, ” says Associate Professor Bode.

Brain signals could also be used to control wheelchairs, or even exoskeletons, as recently achieved by a research team from France.

Additionally, by identifying the neural change-of-mind patterns, Associate Professor Bode says that the research can contribute to understanding dysfunctional decision-making in patients, who have trouble integrating all relevant information and lack the flexibility to change their minds when necessary.

The research may help us to understand what is going on when people have difficulty in changing their minds. 

For example, people suffering from depression – which is often accompanied by negative and potentially harmful thinking patterns – can have difficulty changing their minds.

Associate Professor Bode says that research like this will hopefully contribute to better understanding human decision-making, and ultimately assist with designing intelligent decision-support systems.

“For neuroscientists, that in itself is very valuable because we already understand a lot about how the brain processes sensory information, but what is less clear is how it computes very complex processes such as decision-making.”

“By understanding how the brain represents information, we can work out what information the brain needs to make ‘good’ decisions. We could then translate this knowledge into presenting such information in a better way to a decision-maker.”

In effect, the identification of these patterns could take us one step closer to the creation of a processing system that is more similar to the complexity of the human mind.

While complex and often taken for granted, the ability to pick and choose between our options is a uniquely powerful trait.

At the end of the day, you have the power to change your mind, look your manager in the eye and eat that muffin anyway.

This article was published by Pursuit.

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