Is Free Will an Illusion?

on April 19, 2008
Featured in News to Know

It appears free will is an illusion, report researchers this week in Nature Neuroscience.

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A recent experiment set out to determine whether we subconsciously make our choices before we consciously make them—that is, whether when our conscious mind makes decisions, it merely reflects subconscious decision-making beyond our control. Designed to go beyond a famous experiment of the 1980s that supposedly suggested free will was an illusion, John-Dylan Haynes of the Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin submitted 14 subjects to functional MRI scanning while they decided on which of two buttons to press.

The key was, the decision could be made at any time, but the volunteers were asked to report on the exact moment of their conscious choice as based on a “clocklike device in the scanner.” So what’s the big news? A brain pattern that coded for a left or right choice was located in the frontopolar cortex of the volunteers up to ten seconds before they made their decision about which button to press; the brain pattern successfully predicted the “conscious” decision about 60% of the time—in other words, it was wrong almost half of the time! That may appear to be a pretty successful rate (even if not perfect), but when you consider that random guessing should be right 50% of the time, this experiment suddenly seems much less revolutionary. Nonetheless, Haynes claims, “[T]here’s not very much space for operation of free will. The outcome of a decision is shaped very strongly by brain activity much earlier than the point in time when you feel to be making a decision.”1 Even U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke neurologist Mark Hallett falls into the trap, with ScienceNOW reporting it confirmed his “understanding of free will as a perception rather than a driving force.”

What seems much more reasonable is that while subconscious motives do affect conscious choice, such that there is a connection between a subconscious brain signal and the final conscious decision, that doesn’t mean our consciousness is unable of carrying out, considering, or rejecting subconscious motivations.

We would have to conclude that Nature Neuroscience erred in publishing a paper with at least one such leap in logic. Of course, if this research is correct, we apparently came to this conclusion well before we realized it!

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  1. “Case Closed for Free Will?,” Science, APril 14, 2008,


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