One of the most frequently visited pages on Conscious Entities is this account of Benjamin Libet’s remarkable experiments, which seemed to show that decisions to move were really made half a second before we were aware of having decided. To some this seemed like a practical disproof of the freedom of the will – if the decision was already made before we were consciously aware of it, how could our conscious thoughts have determined what the decision was? Libet’s findings have remained controversial ever since they were published; they have been attacked from several different angles, but his results were confirmed and repeated by other researchers and seemed solid.
However, Libet’s conclusions rested on the use of Readiness Potentials (RPs). Earlier research had shown that the occurence of an RP in the brain reliably indicated that a movement was coming along just afterwards, and they were therefore seen as a neurological sign that the decision to move had been taken (Libet himself found that the movement could sometimes be suppressed after the RP had appeared, but this possibility, which he referred to as ‘free won’t ‘, seemed only to provide an interesting footnote). The new research, by Trevena and Miller at Otago, undermines the idea that RPs indicate a decision.
Two separate sets of similar experiments were carried out. They resembled Libet’s original ones in most respects, although computer screens and keyboards replaced Libet’s more primitive equipment, and the hand movement took the form of a key-press. A clock face similar to that in Libet’s experiments was shown, and they even provided a circling dot. In the earlier experiments this had provided an ingenious way of timing the subject’s awareness that a decision had been made – the subject would report the position of the dot at the moment of decision – but in Trevena and Miller’s research the clock and dot were provided only to make conditions resemble Libet’s as much as possible. Subjects were told to ignore them (which you might think rendered their inclusion pointless). This was because instead of allowing the subject to choose their own time for action, as in Libet’s original experiments, the subjects in the new research were prompted by a randomly-timed tone. This is obviously a significant change from the original experiment; the reason for doing it this way was that Trevena and Miller wanted to be able to measure occasions when the subject decided not to move as well as those when there was movement. Some of the subjects were told to strike a key whenever the tone sounded, while the rest were asked to do so only about half the time (it was left up to them to select which tones to respond to, though if they seemed to be falling well below a 50-50 split they got a reminder in the latter part of the experiment). Another significant difference from Libet’s tests is that left and right hands were used: in one set of experiments the subjects were told by a letter in the centre of the screen whether they should use the right or left hand on each occasion, in the other it was left up to them.
There were two interesting results. One was that the same kind of RP appeared whether the subject pressed a key or not. Trevena and Miller say this shows that the RP was not, after all, an indication of a decision to move, and was presumably instead associated with some more general kind of sustained attention or preparing for a decision. Second, they found that a different kind of RP, the Lateralised Readiness Potential or LRP, which provides an indication of readiness to move a particular hand, did provide an indication of a decision, appearing only where a movement followed; but the LRP did not appear until just after the tone. This suggests, in contradiction to Libet, that the early stages of action followed the conscious experience of deciding, rather than preceding it.
The differences between these new experiments and Libet’s originals provide a weak spot which Libetians will certainly attack. Marcel Brass, whose own work with fMRI scanning confirmed and even extended Libet’s delay, seeming to show that decisions could be predicted anything up to ten seconds before conscious awareness, has apparently already said that in his view the changes undermine the conclusions Trevena and Miller would like to draw. Given the complex arguments over the exact significance of timings in Libet’s results, I’m sure the new results will prove contentious. However, it does seem as if a significant blow has been struck for the first time against the foundations of Libet’s remarkable results.