Scientists say they know you better than you do

Researchers at UCLA suggest that by scanning people's brains, they can predict better than the people themselves what they will do in the future.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Do you intend to be nice to your co-workers today? Do you intend to spend a little longer in the shower so that your personal crevices are spotless? Do you intend to write that friend request to Mark Zuckerberg and keep your list of friends private?

Well, a group of scientists at UCLA would like to thank you for words, but prefers to scan your brains to prove to you what you really intend to do.

If this all sounds a little macabre, then you clearly don't intend to follow science's inexorable path. According to Reuters, a team at UCLA led by Professor Matthew Lieberman is convinced that its brain-scanning methods are accessing the truth that dare not speak its name.

Here's how they performed their research.

They got 20 volunteers, young and of both sexes, hooked them up to a functional MRI scanner, and fed them messages about the safe use of sunscreen. They mixed in other messages, so that the researchees didn't know what this experiment involved.

What secret intentions might our brains hold? CC Indi.ca/Flickr

However, before the experiment started, the researchers said that "each participant indicated their sunscreen use over the prior week, their intentions to use sunscreen in the next week and their attitudes toward sunscreen."

More questions were asked after the scanning and, as they were about to leave, the researchees were given a thank-you goody bag. One of the gifts was a sunscreen towelette. Crafty, those scientists.

I have no intention of being skeptical, but if the volunteers were asked questions about their sunscreen use, might at least some of them have guessed what this experiment might have concerned?

Still, the denouement was an exciting one for the academics.

They surprised their volunteers with a phone call in order to discover how many had actually used sunscreen. Half of them seem to have known themselves so well that they predicted their own sunscreen use. However, the researchers went back to their fMRI findings and discovered that activity in a specific part of the medial prefrontal cortex seemed like a more accurate predictor than, well, people's own words.

"From this region of the brain, we can predict for about three-quarters of the people whether they will increase their use of sunscreen beyond what they say they will do," Lieberman told Reuters.

He added: "It is the one region of the prefrontal cortex that we know is disproportionately larger in humans than in other primates. This region is associated with self-awareness, and seems to be critical for thinking about yourself and thinking about your preferences and values."

The research, which is to be published in the Journal of Neuroscience, offers the suggestion that these findings might be used to help advertisers hone motivational messages. "No, you really DO want to buy Ritz crackers!! But them NOW!! You'll thank your brain later!!"

However, there is something inherently fascinating about the idea that there might be something inside us that tells the truth far more accurately than our mouths do.

Surely the findings from this research should immediately be applied to the political world. It should be compulsory for politicians to have their brains scanned every morning, with the results being published online, so that we might be fully aware of the inner workings of those to whom we give our precious votes.

Please imagine all the world events we might be able to prevent if we knew in advance just what the powerful truly had in mind.