Saturday, 3 May 2014

Free will doesn't exist

Or does it? It’s a bold statement, considering free will is a kind of super-quality awarded only to humans, and actually defined as the human ability to make choices that are not externally determined.  It's a trait we take for granted, but some neuroscientific studies suggest that there is no such thing.

I recently read David Eagleman’s book, Incognito. I cannot recommend this book enough! Whether you are interested in neuroscience or not, this book will encourage you to challenge everything you have ever known (or thought you knew!)

One of the studies that Eagleman discusses that inspired me to explore further work was that of Benjamin Libet. Essentially, this study involved volunteers sitting at a desk wearing a device to measure their brain activity, and Libet telling them to raise their index finger "whenever they felt like it". He left them to sit in the room over a period of time, and measured the brain activity of the volunteers as they chose, seemingly of their own free will, when to move their finger.

However, his results showed that this might have not been the case.

Consider the diagram below.

From Eagleman, Science, 2004. Adapted from Sirigu et al, Nature Neuroscience, 2004.

This shows the baseline of brain activity of a volunteer (around 0µV), the point at which the volunteer moved their finger (marked on the x-axis, around -5µV on y-axis) and the point at which the volunteer felt the “urge” to move their finger (marked on x-axis, around -2.5µV on y-axis). This “urge” can be described as the point when our conscious mind kicks in, and is the time you feel like you have decided, of your own free will, to carry out an action (in this case move your finger). However, look again at the diagram. Between the baseline reading of brain activity and the urge-point, there is a steady increase in neural activity! This steady increase represents the workings of the subconscious mind – priming the volunteer to raise their finger. The implications of this is that your conscious mind is slower than your subconscious – in other words, your subconscious already knew/had decided you were going to move your finger at that moment, so made sure you were ready when you decided to.

Surely this depletes the entire idea of free will?

Free will is defined as you choosing to carry out an action as we please, which implies you consciously make the decision. If your subconscious mind knows what you want to do before you even know it yourself, does free will really exist?

Getty Images

However, an interesting counterpoint is the idea of “free won’t”. This is essentially the opposite of free will – your ability to veto an action. In the case of the experiment above, this would be the “free won’t” to stop lifting your finger, despite feeling an urge to.

* * *

Schematic diagram of TMS method
Another interesting concept coming to the forefront of neuroscientific research is TMS. This is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, a non-invasive method by which scientists can induce activity in areas of a patients’ brain in order to study the function or physiology of that area. The part of this method that is so intriguing is the possibility that TMS can affect a person’s free will. 

A study by Ammon and Gandevia found that they could influence which hand a volunteer would move, even though the volunteer felt they were choosing their hand to move entirely of their own free will. This was conducted by the scientists using the TMS method to stimulate the frontal regions of the volunteer's brain. Although I find the idea of this slightly intimidating (someone else controlling your sense of free will?!), I can appreciate how ground-breaking this study is.

This topic raises many questions about who is really you

Is it your subconscious mind - subtly carrying out processes that your body needs to in order to function correctly and priming you to think, do and feel? Or is it your conscious mind – the area where it feels like all your ideas and feelings originate? As Freud said, the conscious mind includes everything that is inside of our awareness - this in itself hints at the idea that there is a lot more going on than what you are aware of, or that your conscious mind is not the be all and end all, even though it may feel that way.

In essence, the rest of your mind (that is not under conscious control) is already ten steps ahead of you, preparing you for whatever decision you think you choose to make. It’s an unsettling thought. 

Let me know what you think!


  1. I don´t think just because our brain is able to make preparations for our future decisions, we have no free will. If it wasn´t like that, I suppose every action that we do, would take very long time comparing to a time, that is used to carry on an action, that has been "prepared". Lets put it different way. There will be a baseball ball flying around our head 100 km per hour. It will pass our head and even though our brain already knows what has happened, it will take us few moments to realize that there was actually a ball passing our head with high speed. That is for average person. Now imagine a baseball player, who is standing, talking to somebody and suddenly will catch a ball, that was coming from behind, so he couldn´t actually see it. Yet his brain react very fast together with his body. Subconscious with conscious part together. Some things are being realized by conscious part of our brain very very quickly but because we are used to think very slowly comparing to speed of subconscious mind, we don´t know about that. Put it different way - what we realize and what is stored in memory of what was realized are two different things. The moment when he caught the ball is called reflex. But very after the moment of catching, it is not his conscious mind realizing something, it is his memory saying - a second ago you realized something and you reacted. Our subconscious and conscious mind are one, they work together and every decisions is written into our memory. The fact how fast we are able to read our memory defines how fast we can act. Once you read decision from your memory, you will act. So while there was a task about lifting a finger, your sub and conscious mind together made decision, wrote it into your memory and then you are carrying out the action. As you are carrying out the action, you are actually reading the memory like a string and as you are coming to the end of this string along with the end of action, you are passing varieties of finishing of such an action and anytime during the reading of this memory you can change the course and finish the action with different end.

    1. You raise an interesting point with the baseball player analogy, and your example is similar to how professional baseball players are able to hit a pitched ball that is travelling too fast for their conscious mind to track.
      In both cases, I believe that "zombie systems" or "alien subroutines" are at work. This means that the response you gave was entirely automated (almost like a reflex), a routine that you do not consciously have to consider.
      This is the same as talking or even writing this comment - although I am consciously thinking about the words I am writing, I am not having to consider how each word is spelt as I write. In this sense, my subconscious
      I agree, the presence of a subconscious mind carrying out reflexes does not deplete the idea of free will – but reflexes never need your conscious mind. It is the fact that your subconscious mind can prime your body to respond/think/do something before you are aware you want to do it. This difference in time is only around a second, but your subconscious mind is acting faster than you can consciously realise.
      An interesting point is that the study I’ve described doesn’t allow tracking of the subconscious really, and potentially this would be something fun to experiment with further.
      Thanks for your comment!

  2. Hi Emily. Thank you for visiting my blog yesterday. I find this really fascinating as I live with chronic pain which I believe is caused by my brain. If I can rewire it I should see a difference. I've been reading books on neuroscience to help me. Its easier said than done though. We have programmed ways of thinking which come from our subconcious. In other words, our subconcious mind dominates us which I think is what you're saying. If you've any thoughts on how to change a person't subconcious I would be interested.