How much of the decision making process do we actually have a say in? That’s the question being raised thanks to new research coming out of the Max Planck Institute. Using brain scanners, researchers were able to predict people’s decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them.
The decision is not necessarily one that involves a lot of mental preparation – whether to hit a button with your left or right hand – so whether this study is representative of our own self-direction is up for debate. Nevertheless, questions are naturally going to be raised over whether we have free will at all, or whether conscious choice is 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.
The research focused on revising a classic experiment pioneered by the late Benjamin Libet, which showed that a brain region involved in coordinating motor function fired a fraction of a second before subjects chose to push a button.
Later studies supported Libet’s theory that the subconscious activity not only preceded, but determined conscious choice. However Hayne’s work is the first to show such a massive gap between decision and the action of acting upon the decision.
Hayne’s work showed that in the seven seconds prior to pushing the button, activity shifted in the frontopolar cortex of his subjects, a brain region associated with high level planning. Soon after, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of the brain linked to sensory imagination.
However it is important to note that there are important caveats involved in this study. These disclaimers are important, especially when the results of this study reflect so openly the possibility of us not having free will.
One of the important caveats of this study is that the experiment may not reflect the decision making process of 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.
Another exception is that the predictions were not 100% accurate. Hayne’s notes that free will might enter at the last moment, allowing a person to override what they believe to be a less than favorable 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."
And that implausibility doesn’t concern Hayne’s. "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.
National Institutes of Health neuroscientist Mark Hallett believes that the unease people feel about the potential lack of free will in their lives stems from the misconception that self is 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."
Either way, if you wanted more proof that we’re all living in a simulation, then maybe this is what you’re looking for.
Posted by Josh Hill.