“Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”
~ Arthur Schopenhauer
“Is free will an illusion?” is a question that has plagued philosophers and scientists for thousands of years.
Now, a new study suggests that free will may arise from random fluctuations in the brain’s background electrical noise, and that this activity occurs almost a second before people consciously decide to do something.
Though “purposeful intentions, desires and goals drive our decisions in a linear cause-and-effect kind of way, our finding shows that our decisions are also influenced by neural noise within any given moment,” says the study co-author Jesse Bengson, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis. “This random firing, or noise, may even be the carrier upon which our consciousness rides, in the same way that radio static is used to carry a radio station.”
To understand more about conscious decision-making, Bengson’s team used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain waves of 19 undergraduates as they looked at a screen and were cued to make a random decision about whether to look right or left.
When people made their decision, a characteristic signal registered that choice as a wave of electrical activity that spread across specific brain regions.
But in a fascinating twist, other electrical activity emanating from the back of the head predicted people’s decisions up to 800 milliseconds before the signature of conscious decision making emerged.
This brain activity wasn’t strictly a signal at all — it was “noise,” part of the brain’s omnipresent and seemingly random electrical firing. In fact, neuroscientists usually consider this background noise meaningless and subtract it when trying to figure out the brain response to a specific task, said Rick Addante, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Dallas who was not involved in the research.
In other words, some hidden signal in the background “noise” of the brain seemed to determine people’s conscious decisions before they made them.
“That’s what’s wild about it; it’s not all noise,” said Addante. “The question then becomes, what is it, and what is the information that it contains?”
“The state of the brain right before presentation of the cue determines whether you will attend to the left or to the right,” Bengson said. The experiment builds on a famous 1970s experiment by Benjamin Libet, a psychologist at UCSF who was later affiliated with the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience.
Libet also measured brain electrical activity immediately before a volunteer made a decision to press a switch in response to a visual signal. He found brain activity immediately before the volunteer reported deciding to press the switch.
The new results build on Libet’s finding, because they provide a model for how brain activity could precede decision, Bengson said. Additionally, Libet had to rely on when volunteers said they made their decision. In the new experiment, the random timing means that “we know people aren’t making the decision in advance,” Bengson said.
Libet’s experiment raised questions of free will—if our brain is preparing to act before we know we are going to act, how do we make a conscious decision to act?
Maybe free will is an illusion, but why does it feel so real?Though that’s still a mystery, one theory is that the belief in free will is an artifact that is necessary for human beings to get through life and survive.
When Nisargadatta Maharaj was asked: Is there such a thing as free will? He answered: “Oh no. You are compelled to desire. In Hinduism the very idea of free will is non-existent, so there is no word for it. Will is commitment, fixation, bondage.”