People may think they consciously control their actions and performance, but findings from UCLA’s Itzhak Fried and Roy Mukamel with Gabriel Kreiman of Harvard challenged conventional assumptions about “conscious intention” and “free will. ”
Fried, Mukamel, and Kreiman adopted Benjamin Libet’s procedure to assess “free will” at University of California, San Francisco, using intracranial recordings to identify neuron activity that precedes and predicts volunteers’ decision to move a finger.
Volunteers, who had electrodes implanted in their brains to record early indicators of seizures, pressed a button when they chose and indicated the clock’s hand position when they decided to press the button.
Libet’s process marks the time a voluntary action occurred, and the volunteer’s report of when the decision to act was completed.
These data points enabled researchers to identify specific neurons that were active during the time around the conscious decision to act and the completed action.
About a quarter of neurons in the frontal lobe’s supplementary motor area (responsible for motor activity coordination) and the anterior cingulate cortex (which directs attention and motivation) changed activity before volunteers said they wanted to press the button.
Spontaneous, voluntary acts were initiated in the cerebrum about 200 milliseconds before the person was consciously aware of the ‘decision’ to act, and researchers predicted with greater than 80 percent accuracy whether a movement had occurred and when the decision to make it happened.
Libet’s team suggested that unconscious brain processes, which are more rapid than conscious decision-making (“free will”), are the instigators of volitional acts.
However, these researchers also proposed that “free will” is more accurately described as “free won’t” because conscious volition can exercise “veto power” over intentions to act.
Kreiman extended this research to better understand loss of voluntary movement in Parkinson’s disease when he pre-empted volunteers’ movements after observing brain activation in the supplementary motor area and the anterior cingulate cortex.
He activated a “stop” sign on a screen in front of each volunteer before the person actually moved, and reported that his volunteers frequently said, ”That was weird. It was like you read my mind.”
These brain studies complement Stanford professor Nalini Ambady’s work at Harvard University on “thin slicing”, or the experience of “knowing before you know.”
Also described as “intuition” or “unconscious cognitive processing,” these findings suggest that the conscious mind is the last to know when we make a decision.
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