Posts tagged ‘RP’

Another strange side light on free will. Some of the most-discussed findings in the field are Libet’s celebrated research which found that Readiness Potentials (RPs) in the brain showed when a decision to move had been made, significantly before the subject was aware of having decided. Libet himself thought this was problematic for free will, but that we could still have ‘Free Won’t’ – we could still change our minds after the RP had appeared and veto the planned movement.

A new paper (discussed here by Jerry Coyne) follows up on this, and seems to show that while we do have something like this veto facility, there is a time limit on that too, and beyond a certain point the planned move will be made regardless.

The actual experiment was in three phases. Subjects were given a light and a pedal and set up with equipment to detect RPs in their brain. They were told to press the pedal at a time of their choosing when the light was green, but not when it had turned red. The first run merely trained the equipment to detect RPs, with the light turning red randomly. In the second phase, the light turned red when an RP was detected, so that the subjects were in effect being asked to veto their own decision to press. In the third phase, they were told that their decisions were being predicted and they were asked to try to be unpredictable.

Detection of RPs actually took longer in some instances than others. It turned out that where the RP was picked up early enough, subjects could exercise the veto; but once the move was 200ms or less away, it was impossible to stop.

What does this prove, beyond the bare facts of the results? Perhaps not much. The conditions of the experiment are very strange and do not resemble everyday decision-making very much at all. It was always an odd feature of Libet’s research that subjects were asked to get ready to move but choose the time capriciously according to whim; not a mental exercise that comes up very often in real life. In the new research, subjects further have to stop when the light is red; they don’t, you notice, choose to veto their move, but merely respond to a pre-set signal. Whether this deserves to be called free won’t is debatable; it isn’t a free decision making process. How could it be, anyway; how could it be that deciding to do something takes significantly longer than deciding not to do the same thing? Is it that decisions to move are preceded by an RP, but other second-order decisions about those decisions are not? We seem to be heading into a maze of complications if we go that way and substantially reducing the significance of Libet’s results.

Of course, if we don’t think that Libet’s results dethrone free will in the first place, we need not be very worried. My own view is that we need to distinguish between making a conscious decision and becoming aware of having made the decision. Some would argue that that second-order awareness is essential to the nature of conscious thought, but I don’t think so. For me Libet’s original research showed only that deciding and knowing you’ve decided are distinct, and the latter naturally follows after the former. So assuming that, like me, you think it’s fine to regard the results of certain physical processes as ‘free’ in a useful sense, free will remains untouched. If you were always a sceptic then of course Libet never worried you anyway, and nor will the new research.

Picture:  clock on screen. 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.