Brain And Free Will: How We Really Make Decisions

We are used to thinking that we are making decisions consciously. But what if our consciousness only states the fact of choice? This is what the scientists say.

What decides: consciousness or unconscious

Free will was questioned in the 80s of the XX century after research of Benjamin Libet.

Participants were asked to move their wrists while their brain activity was monitored spontaneously. It turned out that his reaction was ahead of the conscious intention by an average of 350 milliseconds. The person has not yet realized that he is moving his wrist, but his brain has already decided to do it. This preliminary brain reaction is called the readiness potential.

Libet concluded that there is no conscious choice. Any decision is made unconsciously, and consciousness only registers it.

Only 30 years after Libet’s discovery emerged that cast doubt on his theory, namely, that readiness potential is an unconscious decision to act.

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Brain And Free Will: How We Really Make Decisions
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The unconscious prepares, the consciousness decides

In 2009, scientists from the University of Otago tested the theory of Libet, slightly changing the experiment itself. In their version, the participants waited for a beep and then had to choose; press a key or not. It turned out that action or its absence does not matter – the potential for readiness arises in any case.

Since there is a potential for readiness, but there is no action, then it does not indicate a decision to act.

What then does this brain activity mean? There are different opinions. French researcher Aaron Schurger put forward the theory that readiness potential is simply a build-up of neural noise, random electrical fluctuations in neural networks. Prescott Alexander of Dartmouth College suggested that this brain activity reflects a general expectation – the awareness that an event is about to happen.

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Eric Emmons of the Department of Neurology at the University of Iowa linked readiness potential with a sense of timing. The scientist suggested that this is how our brain encodes its own time intervals. Since Libet’s experiment, people had to track and roughly represent time intervals themselves, this theory may well turn out to be true. Whichever option is correct, it turns out that free will still exist, and the readiness potential only shows the processes occurring during decision-making.

Adapted and translated by Wiki Avenue Staff

Sources: Life hacker