Curated by RSF Research Staff
Scans of Brain Activity can be Used to Predict Future Outcomes
In the sci-fi thriller Minority Report, the intuitive capabilities of the human mind were taken to another level as a particularly capable “pre-cognitive” trio (precogs) were used as a veritable prediction device that offered windows into potential futures. Their predictive power was not 100%, as in some cases one of the three would have a dissenting prediction of a potential future—a minority report. While science fiction is… well… fiction, it is often a great source to frame and initiate a discussion into serious scientific inquiries, for example the Matrix movie is perhaps one of the best allegories when it comes to discussions about our universe being a simulation of some advanced intelligent civilization, and the potential consequences of the development and emergence of strong artificial intelligence.
A new study recently reported in the Journal of Neuroscience is suggesting that the brain may actually have predictive capabilities beyond what would normally be presumed, suggesting the plot of Minority Report is not as far-fetched as one might imagine, another classic example of where fact-meets-science fiction. The work—spear-headed by Brian Knutson, professor of neuroscience at Stanford University—analyzed the neuronal activity of 30 people while they decided whether to fund 36 projects from the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Examining the participants’ brain scans, the research team discovered that activity in a region called the nucleus accumbens had a different activity protocol in the participants when they were considering projects that went on to be successfully funded.
The team trained an algorithm to recognize these differences in brain activity using scan data from 80 per cent of the projects, then tested the program on the remaining 20 per cent. Using neural activity alone, the algorithm was able to forecast which Kickstarter campaigns would be funded with 59.1 per cent accuracy – more than would be expected by chance.
This contrasted with what the volunteers themselves had consciously thought. When considering each proposal, the volunteers had been asked to rate how much they liked each project, and how likely they thought each one was to reach its funding goal. Unlike the activity in their nucleus accumbens regions, these ratings predicted funding outcomes with only 52.9 per cent accuracy – which is not significantly better than chance. – Helen Thomson, scanning you brain can predict what will happen in the future, New Scientist
How can areas of the brain have the apparent capability to sense future potential outcomes? With greater accuracy than the participants in which the activity was observed no less. The present study does not offer an explanation, other than pointing out that the nuclear accumbens is involved in anticipating reward, which does suggest why it would be involved in anticipating future outcomes. Quantum Biology is an emerging field that investigates non-trivial quantum mechanical phenomena in the biological system, which has been confirmed in a number of processes, and may offer an explanation into the observed prognosticative capabilities of the human brain. Quantum mechanical processes are intrinsically time-symmetric, so much so that experiments have shown causal influences of the future on the past— referred to as retrocausality. There are entire interpretations of quantum mechanics that are based on the interaction of the future with the present or past, such as Cramer’s transactional quantum mechanics and the Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory. As such, the quantum mechanical phenomena occurring in the biological system, particularly in information processing, may enable a degree of sensing potential future outcomes. The sensing of potential future outcomes may then be reflected in the activity of certain brain regions, which would be experienced by the person as an “intuitive” feeling to make a certain decision.
While speculation about potential non-classical, quantum mechanical processes underlying such anomalous results are intriguing, the present study is undoubtedly a demonstration of the brain’s unique role in attempting to determining future outcomes. The large human brain probably developed to such size and function to especially assist in the successful prediction of future probabilities. If indeed nonlocal and trans-temporal quantum mechanical processes are naturally available to the biological system, it is not at all beyond the scope of reason that evolution would utilize such processes to increase the brain’s capacity to sense the future.
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