Do You Believe In Free Will? Maybe You Should, Even If You Don’t

Free_willMaria Konnikova over at Big Think's Artful Choice:

Is free will real, or is just one of our happy illusions? As it turns out, the answer might not matter as much as our belief in the answer does. A recent study showed that, when people’s belief in free will was experimentally reduced, pre-conscious motor preparation, or that activity that precedes action, in the brain was delayed by more than one second relative to those who believed in free will – an eternity in brain time.

Finding free will in the brain

For over fifty years, almost all the way up to his death in 2007, Benjamin Libet studied the neural correlates of consciousness. While the philosophical conclusions that have been drawn from his work remain contentious—and some would say highly problematic—he did make some fascinating discoveries about the human brain that have remained central to the study of conscious awareness.

First, he observed the existence of something called the readiness potential, or RP, in the brain, up to 550ms prior to the initiation of action. In other words, our brains are prepared to act over half a second before we actually act. So far, not so terribly surprising – as long as we are aware of planning an action. Of course, our brain needs time to prepare. That makes a whole lot of sense.

However, the more striking finding was that this RP preceded conscious awareness of the intention to act: Libet’s subjects became aware of their action intention 350-400ms after the RP had started. Or, to put it differently, our brains seem to initiate an action before we are even aware of wanting to make it.

But note the crucial timing here: volitional action is initiated in a preconscious stage, yes, but we do have a window of opportunity (anywhere from 150 to 200ms) when we are already aware of the action but have not yet acted, should we wish to change, stop, or otherwise redirect that action. So, for those who want to take a philosophical interpretation of the physiology, free will might be constrained, but remains alive and well in those 150-200ms.

Libet’s paradigms have since been used extensively in the study of free will, consciousness, and agency, and have sparked extensive debates (including some highly existential ones) on what it means to have free will, how free we actually are, and what it all means.

Our brains care if we believe in free will

The present study puts all the philosophy of free will aside, and asks instead about the belief in free will. Does what we believe, in a broad sense, actually impact our neural involvement in action preparation? Or, to put it in Libet’s terms, can disbelieving in free will delay the onset of the RP?

The answer seems to be, yes, it can.