May 30, 2024

You can’t help it, German scientists reveal

Button pressing indicates that brain chooses, not consciousness
A team of German researchers claims to have hard evidence that there is no free will. In a recent issue of Nature Neuroscience they show that brain scans predicted simple choices as long as 10 seconds -– "an eternity" -– before subjects were conscious of them. "It seems that your brain starts to trigger your decision before you make up your mind," says lead author John-Dylan Haynes, of the Max Planck Institute. "We can’t rule out free will, but I think it’s very implausible." In the experiment, participants were asked to decide whether to press a button with their left or right hand.

This unprecedented prediction of a free decision was made possible by software which recognised brain activity patterns in the frontopolar cortex preceding each of the two choices. The data was not altogether conclusive but the patterns were statistically significant.

Dr Haynes acknowledged that his experiment had not delivered a knock-out punch to traditional notions of free will. "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," he told Wired magazine. But he doesn’t regret the disappearance of free will. "It’s not like you’re a machine. Your brain activity is the physiological substance in which your personality and wishes and desires operate."

According to Martha Farah, of the University of Pennsylvania, who already being described as "a prominent neuroethicist" by Wired, even though neuroethics’s birth certificate was only issued last month, the experiment confirms her belief that free will is not a very sensible concept. "Most thoughtful neuroscientists I know have replaced the concept of free will with the concept of rationality — that we select our actions based on a kind of practical reasoning. And there is no conflict between rationality and the mind as a physical system. After all, computers are rational physical systems!" ~ Wired, Apr 14; Boston Globe, Apr 14; Max Planck Institute, Apr 14