wiring a neuronA few years ago we noted the remarkable research by Fried, Mukamel, and Kreiman which reproduced and confirmed Libet’s famous research. Libet, in brief, had found good evidence using EEG that a decision to move was formed about half a second before the subject in question became consciously aware of it; Fried et al produced comparable results by direct measurement of neuron firing.

In the intervening years, electrode technology has improved and should now make it possible to measure multiple sites. The scanty details here indicate that Kreiman, with support from MIT, plans to repeat the research in an enhanced form; in particular he proposes to see whether, having identified the formed intention to move, it is then possible to stop it before the action takes place. This resembles the faculty of ‘free won’t’ by which Libet himself hoped to preserve some trace of free will.

From the MIT article it is evident that Kreiman is a determinist and believes that his research confirms that position. It is generally believed that Libet’s findings are incompatible with free will in the sense that they seem to show that consciousness has no effect on our actual behaviour.

That actually sheds an interesting side-light on our view of what free will is. A decision to move still gets made, after all; why shouldn’t it be freely made even though it is unconscious? There’s something unsatisfactory about unconscious free will, it seems. Our desire for free will is a desire to be in control, and by that we mean a desire for the entity that does the talking to be in control. We don’t really think of the unconscious parts of our mind as being us; or at least not in the same way as that gabby part that claims responsibility for everything (the part of me that is writing this now, for example).

This is a bit odd, because the verbal part of our brain obviously does the verbals; it’s strange and unrealistic to think it should also make the decisions, isn’t it? Actually if we are careful to distinguish between the making of the decision and being aware of the decision – which we should certainly do, given that one is clearly a first order mental event and the other equally clearly second order – then it ceases to be surprising that the latter should lag behind the former a bit. Something has to have happened before we can be aware of it, after all.

Our unease about this perhaps relates to the intuitive conviction of our own unity. We want the decision and the awareness to be a single event, we want conscious acts to be, as it were, self- illuminating, and it seems to be that that the research ultimately denies us.

It is the case, of course, that the decisions made in the research are rather weird ones. We’re not often faced with the task of deciding to move our hands at an arbitrary time for no reason. Perhaps the process is different if we are deciding which stocks and shares to buy? We may think about the pros and cons explicitly, and we can see the process by which the conclusion is reached; it’s not plausible that those decisions are made unconsciously and then simply notified to consciousness, is it?

On the other hand, we don’t think, do we, that the process of share-picking is purely verbal? The words flowing through our consciousness are signals of a deeper imaginative modelling, aren’t they? If that is the case, then the words might still be lagging. Perhaps the distinction to be drawn is not really between conscious and unconscious, but between simply conscious and explicitly conscious. Perhaps we just shouldn’t let the talky bit pretend to be the whole of consciousness just because the rest is silent.


  1. 1. Callan S. says:

    As I understand the test, they were to choose a ‘random’ item.

    I think it’ll show up that accessing a ‘random’ choice literally requires stimulating part of your brain you have little to no sense of until it responds – that’s what makes it appear random, because to you it seems like it comes out of nowhere, because you can’t introspect that area of your mind. It’s random because your blind to that area, not because it’s really random. It just suddenly pops out from behind a black curtain.

    Anyway, my point is I think it’ll be eventually found to say something about a humans access to their own pseudo random number generator, so to speak. I’m not sure it entirely applies to the idea of ‘free will’, whatever that term means to each person who utters it.

    I don’t think all things involved with ‘free will’ are outside the introspection limit, but clearly some are and perhaps alot are – and its quite a hot topic to come of which are and which aren’t and how they interact with each other and even synergise with each other.

  2. 2. Jayarava says:

    This brings up the whole question of what a decision is. In Descartes’s Error Antonio Damasio suggests that decision making involves weighing up emotional responses to facts, at least in order to choose which facts are salient to making the decision. And this chimes with the experience of making decisions – suddenly we just know which option to chose. Often the deliberations involve imagining the various possibilities and assessing how we *feel* about each. yes, truth is important, but there will always be more than one apparently true option if we are making a decision.

    Try to catch yourself deciding to get out of bed each day. It’s very difficult. It’s true that we have to go to work. It’s true we don’t want to. It’s true that we need to pee, that we’re thirsty, that we’re tired, etc. While one lies there introspecting, looking for the decision making process, something else is going on which one is not aware of. And suddenly we are getting out of bed having decided.

    Clearly we do also inhibit actions and having come to decisions choose not to act on them.

    Perhaps the difficultly is partly the legacy terms in which the problem is being expressed. “Free Will” is primarily what makes us culpable for wrong doing – there’s no other point to free will. If we were not looking to assign blame, free will would be an uninteresting problem. Because of this emotions run high and people take entrenched positions. It becomes all to easy to argue that the other person’s data are not salient.

    Also Mercier and Sperber’s work on what reasoning is and does seems to change the picture of what conscious decision making might involve as well. They argue that most of us only reason well in small groups; that the conscious logical part of decision making is inherently flawed in lone individuals – as they say confirmation bias is a feature not a bug.

    If we just dropped all the free will stuff and asked, what is involved in decision making we might make better progress with understanding our minds.

  3. 3. Vicente says:


    If we just dropped all the free will stuff and asked, what is involved in decision making we might make better progress with understanding our minds.


    And even more if the decision is something else than moving a finger in lab conditions.

    To me, making a decision is making a choice.

    Two processes are involved:

    1) Given an scenrio, to identify all possible available choices at a certain point. Information gathering.
    2) Implementing a selection making algorithm.

    To identify the possible options is a personal skill, a sign of intelligence.
    The selection algorithm is a much more emotional, cultural and educational driven process.

    The first step is to be aware of this process, and to try to bring to the conscious level as much of it as possible.

    The second step is to have a goal(whatever), upon which to construct the selection algorithm (right or wrong).

    And this is the loop: scanning-choosing. Is this an automatic process? is most of the selection process carried out subconsciously? are genes and boundary conditions all that matter? this is the issue about free will.

    I think that unless going through a positive disintegration process (D?browski) to some extent, we cannot even think of free decision making.

  4. 4. Hunt says:

    I’ve pretty much decided that epiphenomenalism is true to one extent or another and perhaps to an extent that deprives us of any really degree of autonomy. It’s surprising just how many questions are answered when we assume that “we” (the “talky” us) are actually in the passenger seat and some other process, subconscious and perhaps unconscious is really driving. I say perhaps because this may not necessarily be an unconscious process, though if it were conscious, it would be qualitatively different than us, since it would be deterministic and its free will would be evident to it.

    There is no way we can actually know phenomenologically, whether this thing is conscious or not, except empirically via secondary signs, like the volitional gap or perhaps some pathological condition. This a point I (and I’m sure others) have made about gut neural system “the second brain”. If it were conscious, there would be no way for it to communicate that fact, save perhaps by upsetting our GI function. Which, as it happens, it does!

    In fact, if we really want to launch into a flight of fancy, there would be nothing stopping the deterministic us(es) from holding and conducting a hidden society and thinking thoughts different than ours.

  5. 5. Cervantes says:

    We often make plans long in advance. I knew last night that I would get up this morning, take a shower, shave, drink a cup of coffee and take my pills, and drive to work. And I did it. I was well aware that I would type this comment before I did so. But, on other occasions, I think better of it and don’t type my comment after all.

  6. 6. john davey says:

    The reality is almost nothing about human behaviour either requires or uses conscious effort. Most things are done without thinking about it – driving a car, riding a bike .. how many times do we sit and make a conscious effort to chew food ? We don’t, we just do it.

    But the free will question is not the same as the pre-determinaton question. The Libet test might show something about the role of consciousness in action taking (albeit in a very restricted example – choose from A or B without applying any selection criteria) but says absolutely nothing about predetermination.

    I think most people intuitively know that consciousness doesn’t actually control the brain in any way. Thoughts and feelings pop into consciousness at random whether you like it or not. Frequently you can’t get rid of them,painful or not, as the old indian sages like Buddha realised thousands of years ago. The mind is a biological feature with a pile of imperfections, but post-descartian western ‘culutural tradition’ – propaganda – holds that the brain is a perfect place, with a perfectible man at the helm – chosen by God – entirely in control of the ship. The reality is more nuanced. ‘Free will’ is a concept built on cultural notions rather than having any great scientific meaning. Determinism on the other hand is a straightforward idea, and about this the Libet experiment has nothing to say whatsoever.

  7. 7. Hunt says:

    If you were merely being informed of all those things, how would you tell the difference? Exaggerating to make the point, and continuing the driving metaphor, suppose you were driving in a car across Europe, but a minute before every turn your car made it for you. You were merely under the impression that you did it , because, well, that’s just they way you’ve regarded things for your entire life.

  8. 8. Arnold Trehub says:

    Consciousness (your phenomenal world) presents an updated representation of the world around you. Decisions are made unconsciously according to the adaptive demands of your updated phenomenal world, and contribute to a new updating of your conscious experience.

  9. 9. Rodger Cunningham says:

    I haven’t visited for a while and I’m very late to this discussion, but I just wanted to say that I don’t find this odd or disturbing at all, and I’m one of the noncompatibilist voluntarists in the room. (Please, I’m not here to debate that.) In my case even introspection seems to show that I make a decision before I narrativize it. Anyhow my own academic training strongly runs in the direction that the unity of the self is an illusion, and I’ve long believed that the real “illusion of free will,” or about “free will,” is the illusion that our making a decision is coterminous with our telling ourselves about it. I also agree with Jayarava that “free will,” a phrase I associate with controversies among Baptists, is a useless and misleading term when we want to discuss whether there’s more than one actually possible future (which to me, contra Jayarava, is the real point of any such discussion, and not “Imputing Sin & Righteousness to Individuals”, which doesn’t much interest me).

  10. 10. Unconscious free will | Observing Ideas says:

    […] always thought to be a conscious event. From the first experiments of Benjamin Libet (see also: “Neurons and Free Will” in the References) in which a specific neural activity had happened before a participant […]

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