Skip to main content


Brain research: “watching” the brain as it makes decisions

(Vienna, 14th March 2012) Even seconds before we actually make a decision, the decision is already visible in the nerve pathways of the cerebral cortex. As Thomas Klausberger from the Centre for Brain Research at the MedUni Vienna explains ahead of the forthcoming international “Brain Awareness Week” from the 12th to the 16th of March: “This doesn’t mean, however, that there is no such thing as free will. Decisions are prepared in many regions of the brain, but where and how they are actually made is as yet unclear.”

This is a neuronal code for which the scientists at the Centre for Brain Research, among others, are searching, like the DNA code. Says Klausberger: “We still know way too little about the structure and function of the human brain.”

But what has been demonstrated is that, seconds before a decision is made, activity in the pre-frontal cortex, part of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex at the front of the brain, indicates what the result of the decision will be. This is particularly true for quick decisions. “Often, we only establish a reason for what we have done later. We invent it.”

The fact that there still has to be free will, however, is demonstrated by the fact that humans can set long-term goals that have a powerful influence over their lives. Says Klausberger: “It’s not about comparing experiences. It’s the projection of something new. We have this ability because we have the largest pre-frontal cortex.”

The buffer for emotions
This part of the cerebral cortex is also akin to a buffer for the emotions. The pre-frontal cortex is always more active if someone is afraid or angry and is suppressing or constraining these emotions successfully in order to respond effectively to the situation in hand or in order to be able to evaluate a new situation.

If an emotion is triggered, the pre-frontal cortex immediately begins to analyse it and compares it with all conceivable reactions using different neuronal pathways - and then decides on the most suitable.

The basic human moral attitudes are also stored in this part of the brain. Says Klausberger: “If this part of the brain is injured, it can result in fundamental changes in behavioural patterns. The person’s emotional character can change completely.” This is due to the fact that the pre-frontal cortex is networked with many other areas of the brain, and information about our experiences, emotions and motivations are linked in order to enable us to make practically and morally appropriate decisions.

Service: “Brain Awareness Week”
The international “Brain Awareness Week” takes place form 12th to 16th March 2012. At the Centre for Brain Research at the MedUni Vienna (Spitalgasse 4, 1090 Vienna), presentations and workshops will be on offer for students from the 10th grade. School groups and individuals can register with the Centre’s secretary: (Tel.: +43 (0)1-40160-34 051).

Information: Thomas Klausberger will be speaking (in German) on Tuesday, 15th March 2012 at 3:15 p.m. about “Memory, learning, decision-making – how does our brain do it?”.