The next time you find yourself saying, "I've got a gut feeling...", you probably should go with that intuition. Because brain-reading experts at Northwestern University suggest that this is just your mind at work, helping you solve all sorts of problems faced in everyday life.
Researchers behind the study say that it offers precise electrophysiological evidence that such decisions may sometimes not be guesswork after all.
They have revealed that guesses made by the participants during the study turned out to be as accurate or more accurate than when they thought they consciously remembered.
"We may actually know more than we think we know in everyday situations, too," Nature magazine quoted Ken Paller, professor of psychology at Northwestern, as saying.
"Unconscious memory may come into play, for example, in recognizing the face of a perpetrator of a crime or the correct answer on a test. Or the choice from a horde of consumer products may be driven by memories that are quite alive on an unconscious level," the researcher added.
According to Paller, the study links lucky guesses to valid memories, and suggests that people need to be more receptive to multiple types of knowledge.
In their study report, the researchers have revealed that during the first part of the memory test, the participants were shown a series of colourful kaleidoscope images that flashed on a computer screen. Half of the images were viewed with full attention as participants tried to memorize them.
When the participants were seeing each of the other images, they heard a spoken number, such as 3, 8 or 4, which they had to keep in mind until the next trial, when they indicated whether it was odd or even.
The researchers said that the participants had to listen to a new number on every trial, and press a button to complete the number task.
They said that it could be said in other words that the participants could focus on memorizing half of the images, but were greatly distracted from memorizing the others.
A short time later, they viewed pairs of similar kaleidoscope images in a recognition test.
"Remarkably, people were more accurate in selecting the old image when they had been distracted than when they had paid full attention. They also were more accurate when they claimed to be guessing than when they registered some familiarity for the image," Paller said.
While splitting attention during a memory test usually makes memory worse, Paller said: "But our research showed that even when people weren't paying as much attention, their visual system was storing information quite well."
The researcher added: "The novel results show that when people try to remember, they can know more than they think they know."
Writing about their findings in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the researchers revealed that their study built upon a body of research that shows that amnesia victims with severe memory problems often have strong implicit memories.
They said that their work indicated that people should not rely only on conscious memory.
"It suggests that we also need to develop our intuitive nature and creativity. Intuition may have an important role in finding answers to all sorts of problems in everyday life - including big ones such as our ailing economy," Paler said.