Unconscious Decision Making

Tuesday April 15, 2008

Cauliflower Brain

I don’t want to bang on about this one topic ad nauseum, but nevertheless, in the light of my previous post and the discussion that it has generated, I thought that visitors to thinkBuddha might be interested in some recently published research into the subject of free will.

John-Dylan Haynes and his fellow researchers at the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience wired up their subjects to fMRI scanners and asked them to press a button with either their left or right hand when the urge took them to do so. Meanwhile different letters flashed up before them on a screen, and they were asked, after the event, to say which letter was on-screen when they decided to press a button.

This, of course, looks very like the famous experiment by Benjamin Libet concerning the timing of volitional acts. The difference, however, was in the use of fMRI scans. When Haynes’s team analysed these, they found that there was activity in the prefrontal cortex up to an astonishing ten seconds before the decision was enacted, and that this activity could be used to reliably predict which button the subjects later pressed. In other words, our brains decide before we do (this, of course, makes sense of many things in my life: like, for example, why I am writing this in a coffee shop, rather than sitting at home and getting on with the job application forms that are on my desk…). This brings to mind a line from one of Natalie Goldberg’s books about the brain being an involuntary organ. When I first read that, it seemed to make sense of rather a lot.

If you want to find out more, then Wired Magazine has a good article on this research, with proper diagrams and everything, instead of feeble visual puns on the theme of brains/caulflowers. There’s also an article in New Scientist, which you may or may not need to log in to read.

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#1 · ramonsanchez

15 April 2008

hi thanks 4 the info on wired magazine a 10 seconds gap is truly amazing.this is certainly not how we normally think of ourselves…………….on the subject of free will maybe im missing the point but seems to me that it isnt either or. imagine that i have free will and decide to(freely) limit the amount of children i have .(or not)….and then imagine that a being who has seen the planetary intelligence reach maximum population many times on different worlds has much insight into what will happen to our population(and no doubt much else)…….couldnt my will be free and yet in the wider frame together we create inside the bounderies of what is likely to happen?

#2 · Tom Clark

16 April 2008


Thanks for this and your other posts questioning free will – neuroscience provides some powerful insights into the dependent nature of the self and its choices. As you and your readers have pointed out, many humanistic and practical implications flow from seeing we aren’t causally privileged over the natural world. Also glad to see you’ve been in touch with the Center for Pragmatic Buddhism. Keep up the great work!


Tom Clark
Center for Naturalism

#3 · maria

16 April 2008

Recent articles in the media have highlighted the fact that organ donor recipients have taken on some of the donor’s personalities. This suggests that it is not only the brain which is involved in decision making.

#4 · Ed Knight

20 April 2008

Like to see this done with very advanced meditators. See if the arising of the impulse is noticed. Those able to control parasympathetic processes may produce some very interesting results. also there is no self report on what the person is aware of 10 seconds before moving the finger, a flaw in the research design. Recall of a letter on the screen is a poor substitute. Finally, the decision is trivial. Reminds me of Hull doing predictive modeling of human activity from a puff of air on the human eyeball. Kinda silly.

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