Learning Lab

How free is your free will?

By Amy Brann

Do you believe you have free will? Do you believe you control your mind, your actions, your fate?

In a series of controversial experiments (the results were controversial, not the methods) some startling discoveries came to light. Bear in mind as we look at these they were conducted in the 1980s…and consider how few people you know who know about them! Ben Libet took a group of volunteers and asked them to flick their wrist whenever they chose. The choice of when to do this was completely up to the volunteers. Libet was measuring readiness potentials in the brain and found that on average this began 550 milliseconds before the activation of the muscles in the wrist. This is interesting, what is even more interesting is that not all readiness potentials were followed by movements. Libet said “The brain was evidently beginning the volitional process in this voluntary act well before the activation of the muscle that produced the movement”. Basically the brain said go long before the muscle responded.

If free will was present then surely the gap between brain saying go and muscle going would be much shorter (550 milliseconds is a LONG time in the brain).

The next set of experiments Libet did involved trying to find out when free will first appeared. He came up with an ingenious way of measuring this…email me if you want the details…what he found was that again the readiness potential appeared roughly 550 milliseconds before the muscle moved and amazingly the awareness of the decision to act occurred 100-200 milliseconds before the muscle moved. This means that the readiness potential appears around 350 milliseconds before you become consciously aware of your decision to move!

Is free will really free will then?

Further research suggests (strongly) that free will is a veto process. It can absolutely stop actions before they occur. It can stop something your unconscious cerebral processes have started.

Kind of interesting that many religious ‘laws’ are statements telling us to not do something or refrain from things.

You May Also Like…