As neuroscience and cognitive science continue to make headway, the deeply felt and perfectly intuitive sense that we are the drivers of our own thoughts and actions becomes less and less believable.
The latest salvo in the free will debate was fired by researchers from the University of New South Wales in Australia who, in a study not unlike the famous experiments conducted by Benjamin Libet, have demonstrated that our choices become apparent in the brain well before the act of making them.
To be precise, the mismatch between neural activity which leads to an activity and our conscious awareness of having chosen it is more than one-sixth of a minute, write the authors in a paper out in the prestigious science journal Nature.
In the experiment, volunteers were shown two visual patterns or red and green stripes (one of them running horizontally, the other vertically) and were then asked to freely choose which of them to imagine.
Experiments using fMRIs have shown that it is possible to guess both the chosen pattern and the subjectively reported vividness of its subsequent mental representation as many as 11 seconds before the subject even opens his or her mouth to speak.
One potential explanation for these findings is that our brains may be storing “thoughts” on “stand-by” that are based on previous brain activity, which then bias our volition in later situations where we have to make a decision.
“As the decision of what to think about is made, executive areas of the brain choose the thought-trace which is stronger. In other words, if any pre-existing brain activity matches one of your choices, then your brain will be more likely to pick that option as it gets boosted by the pre-existing brain activity,” said lead author Professor Joel Pearson.
This would seem to explain the well-known phenomenon where thinking about something leads to increasingly more and more thoughts about it, or, as Fyodor Dostoevsky once noted – “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute”.
So does this mean that free will is definitely an illusion? Whatever the case may be, much further research and philosophical investigation will need to be done before any kind of consensus is reached.
In the words of Joel Pearson: “Our results cannot guarantee that all choices are preceded by involuntary images, but it shows that this mechanism exists, and it potentially biases our everyday choices”.