Another Blow to Free Will

As we reported in February, students who are exposed to the idea that free will is an illusion are more likely to cheat on tests. Not surprisingly, the notion that our actions aren’t truly controlled by our conscious mind seems to undermine our sense of personal responsibility. Well, our ethical foundations eroded a bit more this week.

Research by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, provides additional evidence that our conscious minds are merely keeping up with (and, presumably, rationalizing) decisions our unconscious minds have already made. It is published in the April 13 issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Test subjects were asked to make a simple choice — whether to push a button with their right or left hand — as researchers at the institute observed their brain activity. The scientists found they could predict which hand the subjects would use a full seven seconds before they made the conscious decision to do so.

The seven-second gap is much longer than that observed by previous brain researchers, and it would seem to suggest the conscious mind is truly playing catch-up. But there may be an alternative explanation, according to lead researcher John-Dylan Haynes.

“Our study shows that decisions are unconsciously prepared much longer ahead than previously thought,” he wrote. “But we do not know yet where the final decision is made. We need to investigate whether a decision prepared by these brain areas can still be reversed.”

In other words, our conscious minds still may have final veto power. Let us hope.