Neuroscience Research: Does Free Will Actually Exist?

Dawn Papple

Free will might seem like a given to most of us, but neuroscience researchers have historically found that the evidence to support the idea that we have free will is a bit murky. You might reach for the spoon in your bowl of soup, grasp it, and raise it to your mouth, but do these actions actually come about from your brain's own free will?

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This brain activity was referred to as the readiness potential, according to Medical News Today. In the 80s, scientists learned of this and wondered if the readiness potential, this pre-conscious brain activity, might be the actual cause of the movement, rather than conscious choices. Libet tested to see if the readiness potential really could be detected before the conscious intention to move.

Libet wanted to know if the brain actually knew what the individual was going to do before the participant was aware of it. Through the next tests, he discovered that the pre-conscious readiness potential actually began roughly one-half second before the individual reported the decision to do so. Many took this to mean that free will doesn't actually exist. If our decision to do something is made before we consciously decide to do it, it seemed to the neuroscience community, suggestive that there is no real free will to speak of.

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To test this veto ability, the researchers pitted participants against computers in a kind of duel and monitored their brainwaves with an electroencephalography (EEG) the whole time. The computer was trained to read the participant's mind, anticipate their next move by reading the readiness potential, preempt the participant, and make its move first.

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The human participants were able to somehow, in the last split second, change their minds and veto their non-conscious decision. This could indicate good news for people hoping to transform their own lives through their own deliberate intention, according to neuroscience researchers.

"A person's decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves. They are able to actively intervene in the decision-making process and interrupt a movement," Professor Haynes explains according to the press release. "Previously people have used the preparatory brain signals to argue against free will. Our study now shows that the freedom is much less limited than previously thought."

Haynes says there is a point of no return when it's too late for a person's free will to veto the unconscious decision to act, but free will to override our unconscious minds certainly does seem to exist, just as humans have always hoped.

[Image via Pixabay]