Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Free Will is an Illusion: Brain Scanners Can See Your Decisions Before You Make Them

You may think you decided to read this story -- but in fact, your brain made the decision long before you knew about it.

In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people's decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them.

The decision studied -- whether to hit a button with one's left or right hand -- may not be representative of complicated choices that are more integrally tied to our sense of self-direction. Regardless, the findings raise profound questions about the nature of self and autonomy: How free is our will? Is conscious choice just an illusion?

"Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done," said study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a Max Planck Institute neuroscientist.

Haynes updated a classic experiment by the late Benjamin Libet, who showed that a brain region involved in coordinating motor activity fired a fraction of a second before test subjects chose to push a button. Later studies supported Libet's theory that subconscious activity preceded and determined conscious choice -- but none found such a vast gap between a decision and the experience of making it as Haynes' study has.

In the seven seconds before Haynes' test subjects chose to push a button, activity shifted in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of sensory integration. Haynes' team monitored these shifting neural patterns using a functional MRI machine.

Taken together, the patterns consistently predicted whether test subjects eventually pushed a button with their left or right hand -- a choice that, to them, felt like the outcome of conscious deliberation. For those accustomed to thinking of themselves as having free will, the implications are far more unsettling than learning about the physiological basis of other brain functions.

Caveats remain, holding open the door for free will. For instance, the experiment may not reflect the mental dynamics of other, more complicated decisions.

"Real-life decisions -- am I going to buy this house or that one, take this job or that -- aren't decisions that we can implement very well in our brain scanners," said Haynes. Also, the predictions were not completely accurate. Maybe free will enters at the last moment, allowing a person to override an unpalatable subconscious decision.

"We can't rule out that there's a free will that kicks in at this late point," said Haynes, who intends to study this phenomenon next. "But I don't think it's plausible."

That implausibility doesn't disturb Haynes.

"It's not like you're a machine. Your brain activity is the physiological substance in which your personality and wishes and desires operate," he said. The unease people feel at the potential unreality of free will, said National Institutes of Health neuroscientist Mark Hallett, originates in a misconception of self as separate from the brain.

"That's the same notion as the mind being separate from the body -- and I don't think anyone really believes that," said Hallett. "A different way of thinking about it is that your consciousness is only aware of some of the things your brain is doing."

Hallett doubts that free will exists as a separate, independent force. "If it is, we haven't put our finger on it," he said. "But we're happy to keep looking." - wired

Wow. That's sort of big news. Free will is an illusion. I had to say this. I did not decide to say it.


Ann said...

Ah, excuse me, but "seven seconds" is not quite the same, it seems to me, "as long before you knew about it". In the realm of other than specially decision-making, it seems humans are more complicated and this may relate to the decision making process itself. We all have a subconscious or unconscious mind that is working all the time. We continously see, for example, far more than we are acutely aware of. Many of our thoughts or thought-like processes occur outside the realm of our awareness. And, undoubtedly they precede our conscious thoughts. Perhaps it is something similar to this that these scientists tapped into. I would say we do have a "free-will" but greatly influenced by our personal history and environment, as well as our society, culture, .....

TheAdlerian said...

The "subconscious mind" is no longer a valid concept in psychology. It's a long explanation, but what has replaced it is the "pre-conscious."

That means that we all have loose ideas which suddenly focus into one main idea. You might get many signs that you're going to be fired, and then suddenly figure it out, and it will seem like you knew it all along.

Also, freewill isn't considered a valid concept in psychology either. Rather, it's more like a religious and legal concept which serves to lay blame on people who violate rules.

Xeno said...

Many people I've talked to about this have been bothered by it. I'm still trying to get my head around it.

How can free will exist if we decide seven seconds before we know we decided?

That makes conscious choice an illusion, and consciousness an epiphenomena. In other words, our conscious awareness doesn't do anything, it just is the output, the end result of our brain doing things.

Our belief that we exist and are in control of ourselves are both illusions. I find that comforting in a strange way. Sit back and enjoy the ride, right?

Ann said...

Ok, I looked it up and you're right. About the Upanishads Schopenhauer said, "It has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death!" but he also said he was influenced by Kant, who I mentioned, and Plato (Remember Plato's thoughts on the unconscious or mind: the story about charioteer with 2 horses pulling in different directions?) But, Freud isn't Schopenhauer and I would agree with you concerning your comment about Freud. Ellenberger said as much in his history of the unconscious, i.e. it preceded Freud. Anyway, if the origins of the study of the unconscious is partially Eastern, then so be it. This doesn't make its study in the sciences then or today any less meaningful or significant or any less pertinent in our lives.

As I wrote above it would be silly to imagine a "free will" as you might describe it. I think your idea of "free will" is much like your idea of me wanting to think like a "Chinaman," (but I'm sure you meant to write "Asian"). Like I said, I'm a compatibilist or what Wm. James called a “soft determinist”, but I also feel our ability to will ourselves evolves as we mature.

About going to the site ... perhaps.

TheAdlerian said...

If would be fun to see you there Ann.

Conversation can be therapeutic.