The concept of free will dictates most modern human societies, though as science is gradually finding out, it might not be as ‘free’ as we think. Rather than conscious choice, many of our everyday decisions are actually taken by the subconscious part of the brain – a complex network of neural signals and connections we’re only now starting to fully understand.
10. The Gaydar
Quite a few people claim to have an innate ability to guess someone’s sexuality – colloquially known as the ‘gaydar’ – though how real is it? On the surface, it might sound like just another way to mask existing stereotypes about anyone not falling on the ‘straight’ spectrum, which may well usually be the case. However, according to science, if we switch to our subconscious brain and don’t actively think about it, most of us do have this ability.
Studies have shown that people are able to guess sexual orientation just by looking at someone’s picture within as little as one-tenth of a second. It holds true even when all parts of the photograph other than the face are cropped out. That means that it has little to do with stereotypical factors like clothing or mannerisms, and more with how the human brain naturally responds to faces.
Research also suggests that while everyone has it to an extent, some people are better – or worse – at it than others. People who hold homophobic views, as one example, don’t perform too well on these studies.
The ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field – or magnetoreception – has been extensively found and studied across the animal kingdom. From migratory birds to marine animals to even some butterfly species, a variety of species have it in different forms. Most of them can see the magnetic field in their vision, too, which does sound kind of cool.
While it’d be handy to have an inbuilt GPS of sorts at all times, humans have largely lost that ability. Some recent research, however, suggests that not all of it may be gone. One study done by researchers from Caltech and the University of Tokyo found that shifts in the magnetic field of our surroundings trigger discernible changes in the brain, proving for the first time that humans possess some form of magnetoreception. It’s entirely subconscious, too, which may have been quite useful for navigation during our early days.
8. Keeping Time
Circadian rhythms are changes inside the body in 24-hour cycles, and they can be found all over the tree of life. Nocturnal animals use them to sense dylight without having to go outside and put themselves in danger. Many flowers that react to daylight run on circadian cycles, even adapting to the variations in seasons in some cases.
In humans, too, circadian rhythms affect many crucial functions like emotions, sleep, and hunger, all regulated by a master clock running in a part of the subconscious brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. Other than the sleep-wake cycle, though, we know little about the others, especially the ones that affect our mood. They’re largely regulated by light entering through the eyes, but also genes, as well as factors like social activity, stress, and exercise, among others.
7. Judging Someone
Whenever we meet someone new, our brain makes a rapid, lightning fast guess about what they’re really like, commonly known as intuition. This happens despite our best efforts to judge people based on what they say instead of how they look, which is where the active part of the brain comes in. Subconsciously, though, it’s a process we have no control over.
More importantly, it’s much more accurate. Behavioral researchers are finding out that as long as we don’t think about it too much – which decreases the overall accuracy – the brain is quite good at judging someone within a fraction of a second. It applies to a wide variety of areas, too – from political affiliation to success at the workplace to sexuality.
What we still don’t know, though, is what these guesses are based on, or exactly what facial features correspond with these traits.
6. Making A Decision
The popular notion of free will assumes that we’re actively in charge of our decisions – an idea that neuroscientists are now beginning to question. As they’re finding out, many parts of that decision making process are running in the background inside the brain, completely outside the ambit of conscious thought. Some studies even prove that the decision-making process begins at least 10 seconds before the choice is already made, in a region of the brain lying just before the forehead called the frontopolar cortex.
Now, that doesn’t mean that the brain makes the decision for us. On the contrary, it just illustrates the complex subconscious signals that go into a conscious decision, which is still ultimately taken by the active part of the brain. We don’t know what those signals are, though, or exactly how much they influence our overall decision-making process.
5. Creating False Memories
Memories are rarely ever perfect recollections of past events. It’s a rather mysterious part of the brain, as we still don’t understand how it is that the brain encodes memories, though we know that it involves a lot of guesswork. Whenever we retrieve a memory, the brain tends to add additional information to replace the irrelevant or incomplete parts, giving us a coherent – even if sometimes entirely-inaccurate – picture of the past.
False memories are a recurring problem in law enforcement. Often in cases of childhood abuse, victims are unable to tell if a repressed, traumatic memory from the past really happened or not. Without corroborating evidence, it has been difficult to prosecute the perpetrators, as research proves that the brain is surprisingly good at creating false memories – especially in cases of trauma – even if the actual events weren’t too far from the truth.
4. Being Racist
One British study from 2009 found that job applicants from ethnic and racial minorities are 74% less likely to land a job. Another one done in the US showed that doctors are more likely to prescribe stronger painkillers to white patients, compared to African-Americans or Latinos. In yet another one from the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers found that people are more likely to find pictures of black males more threatening than their white counterparts.
The worrying part is that in all of these studies – and many others on the same lines – the decision was made by the subconscious part of the brain, without any active racism on the part of the participants. Rather, it’s likely that most of the subjects – as most people we meet every day – don’t hold prejudiced views, or at least don’t admit to it. It’s entirely the unconscious side of the brain shaping those decisions, even if they may be further reinforced by conscious thought. Scientists have even isolated the parts of the brain involved in this process, which starts quite early during childhood.
Proprioception is one of the many senses we have other than the five we know about. Simply put, it’s the spatial awareness of the position of our joints, which helps us maintain balance and perform everyday physical tasks. It’s even present among plants, as they use it to regulate growth and form in response to external and internal signals, like the speed of the wind.
Proprioception is a crucial part of our overall perception of the world, and is largely dependent on sensory receptors in the muscles, joints or the skin, along with inputs from the nervous system. While a lot of it happens in the active part of the brain, it also involves the subconscious brain in ways we don’t quite understand yet. For only one example, subconscious proprioception is responsible for posture. It’s why we don’t have to consciously decide on how to sit or stand every time we do it, which would be pretty weird if you think about it.
2. Detecting A Lie
People have proven to be quite bad at lying in almost every study we’ve done on the subject. The overall accuracy is somewhere around 54%, which is only a bit better than a coin toss. It’s a puzzling issue, actually, as we’re social creatures and generally good at guessing what others are thinking or feeling without having to actively think about it. That’s the entire thesis of this list!
The problem, as it turned out, was that the scientists were looking at the conscious part of the brain. Whenever we try to tell if someone is lying or not, we look for visible signs like fidgeting or avoiding eye contact. Of course, that only works in case of bad liars, and in the absence of those cues, the brain really can’t tell. The subconscious brain, however, still can. Experiments have found that the brain has its own intuitive way of picking out dishonesty or deceit, and it’s pretty accurate most of the time, too. It’s what people mean when they say they have a ‘bad feeling’ about someone.
1. Predicting The Future
The brain itself can’t observe anything, as it’s pretty much enclosed in a sealed, dark shell of bone called the skull. It does everything it does by taking in various kinds of signals and inputs from the surroundings, and using all of them to provide a coherent, understandable image of the world around us.
What’s surprising is that this entire process happens a bit before things actually happen. The brain works in a predictive manner, constantly using past experience to predict what’s going to happen in the future. Known as anticipatory timing, the ability is quite easy to observe in professional sportsmen and athletes, or even professional musicians, whose brains can predict minor events much faster and more accurately than the rest of us.
According to researchers at UC Berkeley, two separate parts of the brain are responsible for this, namely the cerebellum and the basal ganglia