This is from 2008, but still relevant. If you run across more recent articles, please post them in the comment field below. Of course, a seven-second delay between brain activity and action does not necessarily imply lack of free will, I guess. It only implies a seven-second delay.  - DG



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.

 

Read the rest of the article on Wired.com.

Here is a follow-up article to this one: Is Free Will an Illusion?

And here is a link to the abstract: Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain

Tags: Wired.com, brain, decisions, determinism, free will, humans, mind, neuroscience, science

Views: 30

Replies to This Discussion

It makes me wonder if the scanner detects things based on past decisions and behaviors, or if we make the decision unconsciously and it takes 7 seconds before it hits our consciousness.
...or if we make the decision unconsciously and it takes 7 seconds before it hits our consciousness

Well, it seems that that is the case. From what I understand, self-awareness lies in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that is fairly new from an evolutionary point of view. It seems like the brain is making the decision before we are aware that it has done so, instead of the self-aware prefrontal cortex initiating the decision and then sending that info to the appropriate part of the brain. It is like our reflexive (subconscious) brain acts before we are aware of it. If that is the case, then who or what is directing that action?
Tricky subject. The first experiments in the field date further back than this. The first one to prove that a "readiness potential" builds up in the brain before we are consciously aware of our decisions was Benjamin Libet back in the '70s. Ever since there are quite a few people who have decided to rule out the notion of free will altogether and embrace strict determinism. I personally don't think such a conclusion is warranted, for the very simple reason that we are all of our brain, not just the part responsible for awareness. There's an awful lot going on in our head every second, but that doesn't mean those neural processes are something other than us. All this simply means that 1) conscious awareness is a selective state that involves only certain processes requiring more in depth processing and 2) that awareness, being a relatively recent evolutionary adaptation and a very complex mechanism, takes a bit longer to boot, so to speak.

Think of a random episode, like the last time you were startled by a sudden, loud noise. When that happens the first areas to be activated are more - evolutionarily - primitive, sub-cortical structures, such as the thalamus in the case of sounds. From there the signals reach the auditory cortex, but by the time they get there we are already in alarm mode, our hear rate has sped up and we are ready to flee from potential danger. If then our cortical network identifies the sound as non-dangerous, our DEFCON alert level starts decreasing. There is a reason why our sense of awareness appears to be as limited as it is, and that's because it is fundamentally clumsier and slower than the more primitive neural processes we have inherited from our ancestors. That, however, doesn't mean we possess no free will, it simply means we take many decisions subconsciously. It might sound like a trivial distinction, but it is actually a pretty big one.

It should also be mentioned that the time lag is usually far lower than 7 seconds. In most cases it is measured in hundreds of milliseconds.
I personally don't think such a conclusion is warranted

I agree.

for the very simple reason that we are all of our brain, not just the part responsible for awareness.

Great way to put it.

It might sound like a trivial distinction, but it is actually a pretty big one.

I don't think that is a trivial distinction at all. What you've written here is pretty much the way I understand it as well.

Be sure to read that follow-up article, if you have not. It is interesting.

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