Horizon: Out of Control

Zombies on a diet- look away now.

Originally written for TV Pixie. 

Is your unconscious mind actually in control of your actions? Is it your hindbrain’s fault you crave that cake, despite the fact you already look like a late-stage Elvis? And how, exactly, do you learn to knit?

That was the basic premise of last night’s intriguing episode of Horizon.

In attempting to show that our sentient mind is the monkey rather than the organ grinder we travelled to New York, an Arizonan golf course, Oxford University(twice) and University College London: although a large amount of time was spent watching people’s feet sticking out of an MRI scanner. 

An initial experiment measured how much our brains can take in at once: not much, as it turns out. Possibly as few as two bits of information, with our unconscious minds doing the rest of the work: filtering, filling in the gaps, analysing for threats etc.

We also got to find out how our brain learns new skills. Ever found it odd that learning to ride a bike is a nightmare, but once you have it’s like…er…riding a bike? What changes make you capable of doing that?

The answer is: your brain grows new structures – a phenomenon neuroscientists refer to as ‘plasticity’. This allows the new skill to become automated. Basically, once the new structures are in place your hindbrain takes over and you can merrily knit or unicycle, leaving your conscious mind free to worry about mortgages and watch The X Factor.

There was also a very interesting analysis of a problem affecting highly skilled professionals called (in pro-golfers) ‘the yips’, which causes involuntary hand movements that rather puts you off your stroke, so to speak. Scientists think this is due to a malfunction in the unconscious mind: or, more specifically, the newly created neuro-patterns that have taken control of the skill.

Though to be fair, it could also be performance anxiety due to the fact a) you’re  appearing on Horizon and b) you’ve been connected up to about 8 electric-shock pads by excited neurologists.

Possibly the most interesting bit of all was the revelation that a scientist has created a machine that taps into the unconscious mind and takes advantage of the way it notices things without always bothering to alert our front-brain (which is usually too busy thinking about that person at work you fancy).

He took large-scale satellite photos of Afghanistan that army image analysts have to scour for signs of compounds, terrorist training camps or (until recently) Osama Bin Laden’s house. They’re not hugely detailed as they cover thousands of square kilometres, so in the past checking them thoroughly has taken hours.

Enter our neuroscientist. He chops the image up into small portions, then measures the reaction of his hindbrain when it spots a building- a sort of ‘wow’ signal. That reaction on file, he then allows the remaining images to wash over him, letting his unconscious do the hard work.

At the end, his brain has scanned and labelled the whole map for him, picking out areas with buildings. It’s pretty impressive, but never mind scanning for buildings and automating our knitting skills: how long until we can train our unconscious brain to do the washing up, go to work for us and generally plod along like an obedient donkey doing all the dull stuff while our conscious plays Angry Birds?

Hopefully it’s only a matter of time.


Horizon is on BBC2, Tuesdays at 9pm. You can catch up on iPlayer here

Related posts:

Horizon: Playing God


About Hilary Wardle
Hilary is a freelance journalist and copywriter who writes for a wide range of websites, magazines and newspapers, including Buzzfeed, MSN, The Poke, Chortle, the Guardian and the Independent. She specialises in arts and entertainment, comedy, video games and viral content. Contact her at Hilary3@gmail.com.

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