Tuesday April 15, 2008
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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