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Do Humans Have Free Will? Study Provides New Insight

A new study focusing on human free will has brought forth results suggesting that the freedom is much less restricted than what has been argued by scientists in the past. The paper is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Does the human species have free will? Philosophers have attempted to find answers to this question throughout history, and world religions have different views on the subject. Now, neuroscience wishes to come up with an answer of its own.

Are we able to choose our deeds, or are we led onto a predestined path where our actions are all decreed in advance in such a way that we do not have a choice? Or, is the truth more of a combination of the two concepts without them being mutually exclusive?

Researchers behind previous neuroscientific studies have been unable to prove free will in spite of it being seemingly a fact. One of the most famous experiments, on whose findings the new research is based, was performed by Benjamin Libet, in the 1980s. The subjects of his study were requested to flick their wrist randomly as their brain waves were being monitored. The results showed that an accumulation in neurological activity was detected even before the participants would move their wrist, implying that the brain activity preceding the conscious decision (called readiness potential) of the people might be indication of the action being predetermined, without the individuals having a say in it. Thereafter, in attempts to elucidate the matter, Libet asked his participants to watch a clock to record the time at which they decided to move their wrist. It was found out that the unconscious readiness potential (that is, the brain activity that was detected) happened around half a second before the time the individuals claimed to make the decision.

The new research conducted by scientists from the Charité’s Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience based in Berlin, Germany, focused on finding out if the brain could dismiss the readiness potential. Essentially, the team led by Professor John-Dylan Haynes, aimed at understanding whether the decisions made by the unconscious brain could be vetoed by the conscious brain.

Haynes explains their goal to be figuring out whether early brain waves indicate that future decision-making is automatic or if it can be cancelled by the person consciously.

The participants were put up against a computer in a ‘duel’ while their brain waves were being monitored via electroencephalography (EEG). The computer was programmed such that when detecting the EEG readiness potential pertaining to the individual’s next move, it would prevent the anticipated action by making its own move before the human was conscious about what he himself was going to do.

The results show that eventually the human was able to change his mind at the last minute (literally at the last split second, according to the findings) even if the computer could preempt his move, providing evidence that our decisions are not restrained by the unconscious brain activity.

Haynes says that, while other researchers have posited their results as being somewhat anti-free-will, their study shows that the “freedom is much less limited”. However, he does add that there is a “point of no return” where the decision cannot be cancelled at the last moment.


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