Free will or “free won’t?”

Written by Brett Weiss

February 2019

Perceptions in conscious awareness (qualia as they are often called) are very real to each person. At the same time, they are in fact “creations of the mind.” Illusions demonstrate time and again that the mind can be easily fooled. Furthermore, neurologists see that ‘false perceptions’ regularly occur as personal realities.

One possible “creation of the mind” that may constitute an illusion is the perception of free will. Heisenburg physics (as opposed to Newtonian physics) allows that the future is not deterministic and that future events can only be probabilistically determined given that some events are stochastic (random). Some philosophical schools of thought use Heisenburg physics to support their view that free will does exist. What does science say about the physiology of free will?

Libet et al. performed an experiment that utilized EEG to measure perception of willing to move (W) and an EEG activity in the brain that gives rise to movement called Bereitschaftspotential (BP), also called Readiness Potential (RP) in English. The will to move (W) and Readiness Potential (RP) were compared to actual movement (M). Subjects sat before a clock face with a ball that moved around the clock in 3 seconds to report when they perceived the will to move (W). Actual movement (M) was compared with will to move (W) and the Readiness Potential (RP). The Readiness Potential starts about 1 to 1.5 seconds before movement. Strikingly, the will to move starts about 300 ms prior to movement. The RP was 700 ms prior to W. Thus, a possible conclusion of the results is that brain activity for movement precedes a perceived will to move.

Libet et al. said that initialization of movement occurs unconsciously. At the same time, they thought that free will was actually still possible because movements that arise unconsciously can be consciously vetoed. One might say that Libet et al. thought instead of having a free will, people have a ‘free won’t (Hallet, 2016).’

Other studies have reproduced these results many times. The data are clear; however, interpretation is not easy. Does interplay of subconscious impulses dictate behavior? What neural mechanism would explain a “free won’t” process?

References

Hallet M (2016). “Physiology of Free Will.” Ann Neurol. 80(1): 5-12.

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3 Comments

  1. Readiness potential is simply the response to a stressor vs. a relaxed state. Failure to maintain a “ready” state while driving is tagged in police reports as “distracted driving”. Considering the extra 1-1.5 seconds required to respond to a situation because the body is waiting tor the brain to muster some Readiness Potential (RP), the statistics connected to distracted driving make sense. Maintaining a constant RP is required in any sport/activity where the difference between a 0.3s response & a 1.3s response matters. The debate between “free will” & “free won’t” seems quite irrelevant outside the laboratory, since both need to be on stand-by. While driving on ice/snow, the RP should be ON full-time with the option to turn the wheel left or right readily available at short notice, as well as lift the throttle or apply the brakes. Most of the time you “won’t”, but if your RP is cranked up you’ll be ready for “Now!”.

    1. Hello, Gene! The RP represents a neural correlate to initiating motor behavior in the study. These data have been replicated numerous times: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/38/4/784. The debate continues as to what the RP truly means, though.

      Libet et al. proposed that one may consciously veto motor movement once it arises, which may constitute a “free won’t.” I haven’t seen data from a “free won’t” study. If a “free won’t” exists, my question would be whether a conscious veto of an RP would also arise from the subconscious, making motor behavior in general an interplay of subconscious impulses.

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