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

By | April 17, 2008

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.

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

  1. Ann

    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, …..

  2. TheAdlerian

    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.

  3. Ann

    “No longer a valid concept” – rather extreme? Psychological Dogma?

    Perhaps, as you say, it is “no longer a valid concept in [American] psychology” but it or similar concepts (unconscious or “preconscious”) are acceptable and used in psychiatry. I have no problem with your second paragraph. It works well with me.

    As for “free will” may I call your attention, as one small example, to “Neglected Psychological Elements of Free Will” by B. Heller in “Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology” – Volume 11, Number 2, June 2004, pp. 111-118? The first sentence of his abstract says, “Two essential elements of free will — internal locus of control and confident self-efficacy — have been studied extensively by psychologists but neglected by philosophers.” By the way, the same journal devotes an entire issue to the “unconscious”, March 2005.

    Whatever, I feel, when a doctor attempts to communicate with her patients, she must do so using the same language and concepts her patients are most familiar with.

  4. Xeno

    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?

  5. TheAdlerian

    Ann,

    The idea of the subconscious comes from an intellectual trend in the late 1800s. That trend focused on looking at India as being a greater source of cultural knowledge than the mideast, as intellectuals were rejecting Bible based knowledge, and finding that Europe has more in common with India.

    Freud was interested in this stuff too, and modeled his stages of development after India Chakras. The subconscious idea and Jung’s Collective Unconscious concept both share something with the Eastern reincarnation belief. The idea is that somehow are born with knowledge and knowledge based mechanisms in their brains. Also, the subconscious assumes that has complete knowledge of situations, although there’s no evidence that the person could have known the details.

    All of this is mysticism. It has become part of the public vocabulary because of movies/TV and a lack of understanding.

    Free Will:

    Example: The first time I bought car insurance online I thought the transaction was done. I didn’t know that they were sending me something to sign to seal the deal.

    They sent it, and I thought it was junk mail. A few weeks later the state contacted me looking to revoke my plates.

    I was shocked and contacted the state. They said that I had no insurance and if I was operating the car, I was doing so illegally. If so, I had to turn myself in and receive a penalty. The guy on the phone encouraged me to deny using the car and sign a document saying so, he did this after I told him of my mistake.

    The story illustrates the fact the state assumes Free Will so that it can punish people. It says “you Should have known” and that’s it. The word “should” is an irrational word as it implies a state which didn’t and can’t exist.

    The mind is like that of a computer, what has been programmed in it determines who it operates.

    Journal Article:

    Such studies are part of academic business and aren’t worth much. With that said I have no idea how “free will” is being used in a locus of control study. The very concept of external locus of control assumes that a person is conditioned to have it. If free will existed, then we couldn’t be conditioned to anything.

  6. Ann

    Xeno, if you believe your will is absolutely free then, it seems, you also believe you have no past, no events that may motivate, induce, persuade, influence or sometimes even coerce your next move either directly or indirectly, however subtly, at any particular point in time. It’s kind’a silly thought, isn’t it? But, you can also believe that you are influenced by your past and still have a free-will at the same time – this is called compatiblism in philosophy. Although there are different thoughts on compatiblism, I feel that our “free will” develops over time through increasing self-reflection and understanding of our relationship with our personal, social, cultural and physical world. Don’t we become more knowledgeable of our environment as we grow? An infant, whose biological needs aren’t met, cries, almost machine-like, stimulus-response-like, but an older child may decide to refrain from crying and wait knowing his needs and that they will eventually be met. Or, he may actually do something to satisfy a need. Gaining greater awareness of himself and his environment he also gained greater control in the sense that he can express a free will. But, this growing of awareness, quest to know ourselves and our social, cultural environment, doesn’t necessarily need to stop in childhood, and I don’t think it does for most healthy people, at least to some extent. But, then, of course, we can decide to do nothing and kick-back and enjoy the ride also.

    Interesting, TheAlderian, the connection you find between Freud with Hinduism. Have you read “The Wayward Mind” by Claxton, “Hidden Minds” by Tallis or, best of all, “The Discovery of the Unconscious” by Ellenberger? Notions of the unconscious can be found in the writings of Leibniz the early 1700s, Kant in the late 1700s (“Anthropology from a pragmatic point of view”) and if you look hard enough you find that even Ptolemy wrote on the topic. The word “subliminal” arose from “limen” perhaps coined (?) but definitely used by Herbart in the 19th century. Also, in the 19th century, Von Helmholtz (spelling?) wrote about “unconscious conclusion” in his study of perception, which he described as a result of unconscious syllogistic-type of thinking. This notion that even our perceptions are the result of unconscious processes is central to constructivists thinking. By the mid 1800s the notion of the unconscious was extremely popular and Hartman’s “Philosophy of the Unconscious” consisting of (how many?) volumes over 1000 pages that went through 12 editions. He was influenced by the writings of Schopenhauer who in turn influenced Nietzsche. And, Schopenhauer also influenced Theodor Meynert, who one of Freud’s mentors. Hartman’s book influenced Henry Maudsley (mid-19th century), the father of British psychology. As it all turned out notions of the unconscious was so popular at this time that Altschule, historian of psychology, said something to the effect that it was difficult to find a psychologist who didn’t appreciate its importance. As the unconscious movement peaked, however, along came psychological behaviorism, the father of which was supposedly, Watson.

    Bear with me, although the notion of the unconscious was overcome by positivistic behaviorism, there has been a recent revival. So, from Watson and Skinner sprouted a new kind of thinking based on stimulus-response. Notions of the unconscious or consciousness were deemed unworthy of scientific study. Work in psychoanalytical theory continued, of course, but it didn’t focus so much on Freud’s notion of the “id” as much as his notions of the “ego” especially the part which that formed representations from external reality. There was also the Gestalt movement in the writings and work of McDougall, who said to the displeasure of Skinner that human behavior had a purpose and that it wasn’t merely a response to a stimulus, and Woodsworth, from whose works on the limits of attention gave rise to cognitive studies on such things as mental imagery and primary and short-term memory, in other words, of consciousness or, at least parts of it. Also, within cognitive psychology there was the influence of behaviorism such as in “computational functionalism” which studied human cognition in terms of stimulus and response, but unlike behaviorism, it was interested information. This wasn’t much different than describing humans like computers. This was leading away from notions of conscious and unconscious. So, behaviorism was making headway, so it seems, indirectly, in a sense, in cognitive studies, until it was stopped in its tracks, or nearly so, by Noam Chomsky, a linguist, who emphasized that language was the result of deep inner grammatical structures outside of conscious awareness. Also, philosopher Jerry Fodor claimed that all mental processes were mediated by mental structures (structuralism was another trend from the early 20th century in linguistics and later in the social sciences).

    The current emphasis in psychology on the unconscious rose from several different strains of research. One area was the neuropsychological studies of brain injured patients, such as patients suffering from things like amnesia, who were influenced by past events, which they say they cannot remember, and “blind spot” patients, who can be made to recall details of objects which they claim they cannot consciously see. There were other investigations with other types of injuries also. Then, there were studies in subliminal perception, once heavily criticized and dismissed by behaviorists even as late as the 1950s with Packard’s, “The Hidden Persuaders.” But, all that changed in the 1980s with the Marcel who showed that the responses of test subjects could be influenced from information they had perceived outside their conscious awareness. Although his work was also criticized, it has been replicated since then from different sources. There was also work done with post-hypnotic suggestion with subjects who can be versus those who cannot be easily hypnotized. There is also research in other areas. In fact the research has been such that currently the work is being done not so much to prove the existence of the unconscious as to understand its scope and limits.

    If you don’t appreciate the all work done in understanding the unconscious, you won’t appreciate the fact that there is something called “unconscious bias” in employment discrimination. This is no trivial matter, because it was “unconscious bias” that Wal-Mart lost one of the largest class actions suits ever (when was this – in San Francisco?). And, if you don’t appreciate the research done in the “unconscious” especially in the area of marketing studies, you’ll not realize that you’re continuously being manipulated by all kinds of advertising. Industries of different kinds have been spending billions, literally, just to manipulate you via your unconscious. (This is another avenue of research that be traced directly to Freud and his followers around the 1920s and 30s)

  7. TheAdlerian

    Schopenhauer:

    I’ve read everything by him. He suggested the theory of evolution and the subconscious. Freud was accused of stealing from him, which I sure he did, but Freud provided the most BS response ever. He said, “Schopenhauer anticipated what I was going to say.” How ’bout that!

    I think Schopenhauer would have suggested something about his ethnicity over that one.

    Did you know that Schopenhauer was a big student of eastern and Indian thought?

    Free Will:

    We don’t have it.

    For instance, you can’t will yourself to think like a person raised in China. Today, I’ll think like a Chinaman, is impossible.

    That’s because thousands of things go into forming the mind of a person raised in a much different culture with a wildly different language and so forth. You can’t decided to just simulate their minds. You’re trapped in your own mind and its references.

    Ann:

    If you like philosophy and want to talk to interesting people about whatever please come and see me at:

    Iloveopinions.com

    It’s not my site and there’s no money in it or anything, it’s just for fun.

  8. Ann

    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.

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