Is Conscious Choice an Illusion?
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April 15, 2008

Is Conscious Choice an Illusion?

Slide74_2_3 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.

If you liked this article, please give it a quick review on Digg, Reddit, or StumbleUpon.Thanks!

Links:

http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/04/mind_decision

http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/nn.2112.html

Comments

It should read "free-will" is an illusion.

conscious choice is an illusion... infers that "non-conscious" choice isnt ... um conscious.. its non-concious .. so um Duh...

anyways--anyone who has taken philosophy to its limits and understood it.. (obviously not you)
knows that free will has long been "debunked" and that determinism is just an unpopular reality...

so um. yeah... read more, try war and peace :P and dont be afraid to believe uncomfortable things..
you know... just to spice up your life..

How do you propose to choose the "worse" choice, anyways??? hmm???
actively being retarded, lol, free will aka reason is the central edic of the enlightenment.. lol ideas debunked by Jonathan Swift and others 100years ago...

Jonathan Swift was not a philosopher - he was a writer, I seriously believe he could "debunk" anything...

Determinism has been criticized for been a self-sustaining construction, thus impossible to renounce or abolish, as the case with many other philosophical concepts, such as solipsism and even God. The same is also the case with the ancestor-simulation "thought-experiment"...

Important typo correction: "could *not* debunk"

Dear Sir/Madam,

I think we should all wait till the question of consciousness is resolved together with the question of unconscious instead of jumping into some immuture conclusions and speculations.
Best regards.

Dissin' the Swift? he is a writer (satirist) and therefore not a philosopher?? Ummmm... Ummm.. Ummm. nevermind.

I hope you do achive the will to choose without emotion the detrimental choice.
and that it has the effect you pre-visioned.

Concerning decision, If a person feels detached they will appear to have more reason, and since they are not compelled emotionally into a decision, they will weigh the pros and cons deliberately. One who witnesses this deliberation, finds the deliberator to be acting on reason, and in our culture reason is equated with free choice. On the other hand we find the unreasonable persons is one who decides quickly and decisively, and with emotion. They, if their choices are deviant, need medication, and are not given the benefit of having this free choice, certainly we cannot observe the choosy deliberation. This explains why judges, who are totally uninvolved are seen to be rational, whereas the defendant actually needs and uninvolved lawyer to keep him from interacting with the other cold and detached facilitators. His emotions would have him running wild. In every case, the choice for which you have a stronger emotional reaction for is chosen. When the emotional difference is trivial, we are seen to have reason. In any case emotions rule decision, and therefore action. Several patients with similar brain lesions had normal function other than being emotionless and indecisive. These persons who were otherwise normal, could not choose between even the simplest products, and certainly not the most important life decisions. These emotionless patients are precisely the honuhymes of Gulliver's travels, with only reason and no emotion. As emotion rises, detachment falls, and that elusive "rationality" of the enlightenment, on which our philosophy of crime and punishment is based, is lost.

How does that "study" have anything to do with "Conscious Choice an Illusion"?
The intent of the study was to see how soon the brain starts a decision making process.

Your "blog", a poorly rewording of the wired article, is completely wrong.
Oh how I long for the day when only professional writers wrote about science.

When you raise your hand to pick up something on a table, you do not make a choice of what hand to use unless you have to. Most hand movements come so naturally to people that unless they involve some consequence to the choice, there is usually no choice at all to make.
People with hand injuries on their favored side (left or right handed people) frequently still use the damaged hand to pick up things until they can see the damage or realize how much it hurts. A conscious choice between the two sides had not been required before, so if there is no great pain or lack of mobility, the brain would still naturally use the side it has always used.

Anyway, silencer is right. This text has really not much to do with the original article.

Not to say we should not research further but we know now that there is no free will & it IS like you are a machine. You cannot have even the thought to make a choice without neurons & synapses firing in 1 precise manner rather than any of many others. You have absolutely no control over it.


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