Friday, November 7, 2014

Feeling before knowing why: The role of the orbitofrontal cortex in intuitive judgments

This 2014 study in the Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience journal used
magnetoencephalography (MEG) to clarify the role of the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) in intuitive processes for making judgments. Previous studies suggest that the OFC is crucial to intuitive processes but the specific role of the OFC was unclear. The study delineates "decisions under uncertainty" from "decisions under risk". When an analyst needs to decide quickly between multiple alternatives and all consequences of the outcome are unknown, decisions are made on the basis of incomplete information and usually with time limitations. This is different than situations where the analyst knows all possible alternatives and outcomes as well as their probabilities beforehand. To deal with decisions under uncertainty in certain situations, an analyst needs rapid judgment abilities that do not depend on a conscious though process moving through all the steps of reasoning. The research defines intuition as rapid judgments based on hunches that cannot be explicitly  described but nevertheless guide subsequent action.

The study hypothesized that the OFC functions as an early integrator of incomplete stimulus input guiding subsequent processing by means of a coarse representation of the gist of the incomplete information. The researchers used MEG to record participant electromagnetic brain responses during a visual coherence judgment task. The results indicate that OFC activation occurred independently of physical stimulus characteristics, task requirements, and participant explicit recognition of the stimulus presented.

Preliminary neural model of intuitive processing. The OFC functions as an integrator of stimulus input and processes input toward a coarse representation. An initial hunch or gut feeling that forms a judgment and leads to subsequent action reflects the coarse representation.
To test the empirical plausibility of the model suggesting that OFC activation reflects the initial intuitive perception and precedes later stimulus processing geared toward explicit reasoning, the study's experiment used MEG to record participant responses during a visual coherence judgment task.

Ten participants worked through 285 trials in five blocks containing 57 trials each. For each participant, 285 line drawings were randomized in sequence. On every trial, a line drawing was presented for 500 milliseconds. Subsequently, each participant had 2 seconds to decide whether or not the presented line drawing showed a nameable object (was the line drawing coherent?). If the participant judged a line drawing as coherent, they had another 2 seconds to indicate if they could actually name the object. Participants were presented with line drawings of either fragmented but still nameable objects or their scrambled counterparts and had to decide for each stimulus whether they believed it was nameable and, if so, whether they could actually name it. Participants were able to discriminate above chance between fragmented and scrambled stimuli. This result also held true when participants stated that they were not able to name the object, which supports the assertion that the present task involves intuitive coherence judgments. The researchers defined three levels of fragmentation according to three filters differing in their capacity to mask the object in the line drawing. Fragmented and scrambled line drawings had exactly the same pixel information and differed only in their higher-order meaning.

The results suggest indicate that OFC activation in intuitive judgments is linked to initial feelings of coherence that guide subsequent decision and action. Alternative interpretations of OFC activation, reflecting differences in physical stimulus characteristics, task requirements, or explicit object recognition, were ruled out. The OFC has a high number of anatomical, as well as functional, connections to many different brain areas. Previous research showed that the OFC has strong interconnections with ubcortical structures responsible for emotional behavior and memory functions (i.e., the amygdala, the entorhinal cortex, and the hippocampus), as well as visceral and motor control (i.e., the hypothalamus, the brainstem, and the striatum.

The researchers postulate that subcortical structures likely make an integration of experience and current stimulus possible, a prerequisite to extracting the overall gist of a concept. Ubcortical structures likely enable the triggering of quick behavioral outcomes, with rapidity as a main attribute of intuitive decision making. However, further research is required to confirm the postulations. Findings reaffirm that the OFC plays a crucial role in intuitive processing and creating abstract perceptions that lead to initial feelings of coherence and trigger quick action.

Even though this experiment uses line drawings derived from a database of Snodgrass figures and tests inferences from visual detections, it is an effective proxy for the mental shortcuts and symbolic processing that takes place during general intuitive judgments. The framework the study uses draws upon previous literature on intuition and suggests that intuition is a process with four discrete levels of awareness representing knowing without being able to explain how something is known. 
  1. Physical - Associated with bodily sensations 
  2. Emotional - Intuition enters consciousness through feelings and a vague sense that one is supposed to do something and instances of immediate preferences based on prior experience and feelings
  3. Mental - Comes into awareness through images and an inner vision 
  4. Decision - Ability to come to conclusions on the basis of insufficient information 
Horr NK, Braun C, Volz KG. Feeling before knowing why: The role of the orbitofrontal cortex in intuitive judgments-an MEG study. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2014;14(4):1271-85.


  1. Since the OFC is connected to parts of the brain that monitor emotion, did the researchers look into the how the subjects felt after making the judgments? I would guess they would feel tired or stressed if they were really concentrating. Conversly, those that weren't too worried about being correct or relied on quick intuition felt light or happy (cognitive ease).

  2. Kyle,

    Unfortunately this research did not measure emotions reported by the participants post test. I agree that future research should measure how participants feel after making the judgments to further inform how the brain structurally works.