Imagine, right now, you decide to clap your hands. So you do it. No big deal, right?
Actually, great thinkers have been furrowing their brows over the nature of a simple decision like that for centuries. You’re free to clap your hands whenever you want, so it follows that you clap by your own free will. And yet, the objection goes, the universe is governed by cause and effect. What if all your choices that appear to be spontaneous simply are the result of a chain of reactions? Are your decisions predetermined?
Cognitive research, for instance, has shown that our brains generate thoughts before we’re even aware of them, which suggests we make decisions before we’re aware of them, too—not a good sign for those in the free will camp.
But a new study has more promising results. Free will still may sneak its way into our decision making through a surprising source, it suggests: brain static.
"While of course our purposeful intentions, desires, and goals drive our decisions in a linear cause-and-effect kind of way, our finding shows that our decisions are also influenced by neural noise within any given moment."
Building off the landmark experiments of Benjamin Libet, researchers at the University of California-Davis measured the brain activity of a handful of undergraduates as each made choices to look left or right when prompted by images on a screen. A bunch of controls ensured the only thing directing their gaze was their own arbitrary choice.
The researchers wanted to determine if what they call “ongoing spontaneous variability” in neural signaling—basically, the brain’s background noise—influenced the students’ decisions. This excess signaling has been dismissed as inconsequential, but recently scientists have begun to speculate that it could actually be hugely important. “Neural noise is simply that the brain is always firing even in the absence of input or responses, and this random firing may even be the carrier upon which our consciousness rides, in the same way that radio-static is used to carry a radio station,” says Jesse Bengson, the study’s lead author, in an email.
The study's result: Fluctuations in brain static actually predicted the direction in which students chose to look. This sounds just as fatalistic as thoughts existing before we think them, but really it's just the opposite. These constant fluctuations exist apart from the normal causal chain of thoughts, so they seem to allow spontaneous bits to disrupt our otherwise-inevitable cognitive marches toward particular actions and open up other possibilities.
“While of course our purposeful intentions, desires, and goals drive our decisions in a linear cause-and-effect kind of way, our finding shows that our decisions are also influenced by neural noise within any given moment,” Bengson says.
This influence can be problematic, he notes, because it probably plays a role in knocking us off track even when we don’t want to be, like when we act against our intentions, make mistakes, etc. But the upside to our fallibility may be nothing less than freedom of choice.
“Neural noise might be how we can generate novel responses to new situational demands,” he says.