Free will might seem like a given to most of us, but neuroscience researchers have historically found that the evidence to support the idea that we have free will is a bit murky. You might reach for the spoon in your bowl of soup, grasp it, and raise it to your mouth, but do these actions actually come about from your brain’s own free will?
In the 1980s, early neurophysiological research began scientifically exploring free will. Benjamin Libet constructed a number of experiments that made it seem like we don’t actually have free will at all. His landmark study involved asking study participants to flick their wrist randomly, while he measured their brain waves. Interestingly, he was able to measure a build up of neurological activity in the brain before the wrist was flicked. He said it was as if the neurological activity actually preceded the individual’s conscious decision to move. Did the participant’s brain know the wrist was to be flicked before the participant did?
This brain activity was referred to as the readiness potential, according to Medical News Today. In the 80s, scientists learned of this and wondered if the readiness potential, this pre-conscious brain activity, might be the actual cause of the movement, rather than conscious choices. Libet tested to see if the readiness potential really could be detected before the conscious intention to move.
Libet wanted to know if the brain actually knew what the individual was going to do before the participant was aware of it. Through the next tests, he discovered that the pre-conscious readiness potential actually began roughly one-half second before the individual reported the decision to do so. Many took this to mean that free will doesn’t actually exist. If our decision to do something is made before we consciously decide to do it, it seemed to the neuroscience community, suggestive that there is no real free will to speak of.
Researchers at the Charité’s Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, Germany, just published research that indicates that we might not be just victims and passengers of our non-conscious faculties after all. The new research that seriously re-opened the case for free will was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Led by Professor John-Dylan Haynes, the team set out to figure out if we could veto our own readiness potential. Can we override an action once our unconscious brain decides the course of action we are going to take?
To test this veto ability, the researchers pitted participants against computers in a kind of duel and monitored their brainwaves with an electroencephalography (EEG) the whole time. The computer was trained to read the participant’s mind, anticipate their next move by reading the readiness potential, preempt the participant, and make its move first.
The results were a massive victory for free will.
The human participants were able to somehow, in the last split second, change their minds and veto their non-conscious decision. This could indicate good news for people hoping to transform their own lives through their own deliberate intention, according to neuroscience researchers.
“A person’s decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves. They are able to actively intervene in the decision-making process and interrupt a movement,” Professor Haynes explains according to the press release. “Previously people have used the preparatory brain signals to argue against free will. Our study now shows that the freedom is much less limited than previously thought.”
Haynes says there is a point of no return when it’s too late for a person’s free will to veto the unconscious decision to act, but free will to override our unconscious minds certainly does seem to exist, just as humans have always hoped.