Why you should care
Because recent neuroscience research suggests that free will might not be so free after all.
Does free will exist? The question might seem better suited to philosophers, but scientists have also stroked their chins over the age-old quandary. Their answer: Free will might all be in our heads — literally.
Neuroscientists at UC Davis believe that decisions that seem voluntary might really emerge from the constant hum of random electrical firing in the brain, or “background noise,” as described in a study published in the April issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. Certain patterns of background noise seem to occur right before we make a conscious choice. Even when it feels like we’re acting of our own volition, our brains might have already decided on a course of action beforehand — without our even realizing it.
They could predict the students’ decisions based on certain patterns of the brain’s background noise.
Although “purposeful intentions, desires and goals drive our decisions in a linear cause-and-effect kind of way, our finding shows that our decisions are also influenced by neural noise within any given moment,” Jesse Bengson, a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Mind and Brain and the study’s lead author, told Live Science.
Bengson and his colleagues asked 19 UC Davis undergrads to sit in front of a screen and hooked them up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain activity. They instructed them to look left or right depending on which cue flashed on-screen. The timing of the cues was random, and students couldn’t anticipate them.
The team observed a distinct electrical signal whenever the students consciously made a decision. But they could also predict whether they would look left or right up to 800 milliseconds before this signal occurred — based on a specific pattern of the brain’s background noise.
Their data expand on a series of experiments conducted in the 1970s by UCSF psychologist Benjamin Libet, who observed brain activity in participants’ motor cortex (a region of the brain that controls movement) right before they decided to press a switch in response to a visual cue. Bengson’s study traces this decision-making to background noise — which neuroscientists typically ignore when measuring brain activity.
The study says that our sense of free will may actually arise from the “inherent variability” of this noise. “Neural noise gives our behavior the flavor of free will,” Bengson said in an email. “The real question is, ‘Why does it seem like we have free will?’” He compared free will to “a sense, like taste … that we all have: a true experience, just one that is a product of spontaneous neural activity.” Talk about the brain being the body’s control center.