Free will has been a topic that, in my experience, has crossed the boundaries of many subjects. Just recently, however, I first encountered some research regarding what Psychology can contribute to the discussion.
Last month I finished reading ‘The Believing Brain’ by Michael Shermer, which is a work I can heartily recommend to every psychologist and non-psychologist alike! From his academic background in Psychology, Shermer looks at the research evidence that indicates our tendency to form beliefs first, before checking the evidence for them. One of the chapters looks at patternicity; and our tendency to find patterns in data-sets, whether they are there or not. It is in this chapter that I first encountered a piece of research carried out by Benjamin Libet (1985).
In this research Libet was trying to understand the nature of the relationship between the brain and the mind. His attempts at developing understanding were based around the question (pp. 529), ‘How does a voluntary act arise in relation to the cerebral processes that mediate it?’ – in other words what happens within the brain with regards to making us decide whether to put a thought into action or not.
The set-up of the original experiment involved participants being hooked up to EEG equipment and asked to look at a dot moving in a circular pattern on a computer screen. Their instructions were to record where on the screen the dot was located when they first felt the ‘desire to act’ and then press a button (the ‘act’) to stop the dot from moving, thus indicating where the dot was after the participant had acted.
The average difference between the participant becoming aware of the desire to act and pressing the button was 200 milliseconds. However, as Shermer pointed out to my amazement, the neural activity in the region of the brain responsible for the action had begun 300 milliseconds before the participants had even felt the desire to act!
Libet went into great detail in the discussion section and looked at numerous interpretations of the results. There is far too much to mention here, but I would thoroughly recommend reading the original paper, both as an introductory guide or supplementary source on the topic. For now, I will simply highlight one point that he seemed keen to stress, which was that,
“The findings should therefore be taken
not as being antagonistic to free will but rather as affecting
the view of how free will might operate.” (pp. 538)
Shermer interpreted Libet’s findings as evidence that free will is an illusion because our brains were gearing up to react half a second before we were aware of ourselves reacting. Therefore, because we are not aware of this initial neural activity, we feel like we are making a conscious choice that, according to Libet’s findings, our brain has already made for us.
There have been various counter-arguments proposed to the findings of Libet’s research, not least the objection that the whole thorny issue of free will, that had occupied the thought processes of the great and the good for centuries, could so suddenly be resolved!
One of the main objections comes from dualists; who believe that the brain and mind are separate entities. They argue that the major limitation of Libet’s findings is that it does not take into account the possibility that consciousness could be in more than one place at the same time.
Monists (people who believe that ‘brain’ is all there is) counter that almost two centuries of psychological research indicates that whenever someone suffers some form of brain damage, the “mind’s eye” is also impaired; and therefore the idea of brain and mind being separate entities is unsupported; and therefore so is the Dualist criticism of Libet’s research.
So, where do you stand on this matter? Well, wherever you are on the spectrum I hope you found this post a tasty morsel to add to the rich platter of discussion about free will; and I welcome any comments from readers.