What free will looks like in the brain

July 13, 2016 by Jill Rosen, Johns Hopkins University
An illustration of the human brain indicates where researchers found activity relating to free-will decisions. Credit: Johns Hopkins University

Johns Hopkins University researchers are the first to glimpse the human brain making a purely voluntary decision to act.

Unlike most studies where scientists watch as people respond to cues or commands, Johns Hopkins researchers found a way to observe people's as they made choices entirely on their own. The findings, which pinpoint the parts of the brain involved in and action, are now online, and due to appear in a special October issue of the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.

"How do we peek into people's brains and find out how we make choices entirely on our own?" asked Susan Courtney, a professor of psychological and brain sciences. "What parts of the brain are involved in free choice?"

The team devised a novel experiment to track a person's focus of attention without using intrusive cues or commands. Participants, positioned in MRI scanners, were left alone to watch a split screen as rapid streams of colorful numbers and letters scrolled past on each side. They were asked simply to pay attention to one side for a while, then to the other side—when to switch sides was entirely up to them. Over an hour, the participants switched their attention from one side to the other dozens of times.

Researchers monitored the participants' brains as they watched the media stream, both before and after they switched their focus.

For the first time, researchers were able to see both what happens in a the moment a free choice is made, and what happens during the lead-up to that decision—how the brain behaves during the deliberation over whether to act.

The actual switching of attention from one side to the other was closely linked to activity in the parietal lobe, near the back of the brain. The activity leading up to the choice—that is, the period of deliberation—occurred in the frontal cortex, in areas involved in reasoning and movement, and in the basal ganglia, regions deep within the brain that are responsible for a variety of motor control functions including the ability to start an action. The frontal-lobe activity began earlier than it would have if participants had been told to shift attention, clearly demonstrating that the brain was preparing a purely voluntary action rather than merely following an order.

Together, the two brain regions make up the core components underlying the will to act, the authors concluded.

"What's truly remarkable about this project," said Leon Gmeindl, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the study, "is that by devising a way to detect brain events that are otherwise invisible—that is, a kind of high-tech 'mind reading'—we uncovered important information about what may be the neural underpinnings of volition, or free will."

Now that scientists have a way to track choices made from free will, they can use the technique to determine what's happening in the brain as wrestle with other, more complex decisions. For instance, researchers could observe the brain as someone tried to decide between snacking on a doughnut or on an apple—watching as someone weighed short-term rewards against long-term rewards, and perhaps being able to pinpoint the tipping point between the two.

"We now have the ability to learn more about how we make decisions in the real world," Courtney said.

The research team also included former Johns Hopkins doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows Yu-Chin Chiu, Michael S. Esterman, and Adam S. Greenberg. The paper is dedicated to the last author of the study, Steven Yantis, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences who died of cancer in 2014.

Explore further: How your brain might be secretly thwarting your New Year's resolutions

More information: Leon Gmeindl et al, Tracking the will to attend: Cortical activity indexes self-generated, voluntary shifts of attention, Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics (2016). DOI: 10.3758/s13414-016-1159-7

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5 / 5 (5) Jul 13, 2016
How do they know it was voluntary? For example, how did they account for the fact that sometimes we involuntarily recoil from something we find unpleasant to watch, or that sometimes we do things without intending to do.

Having ADHD, I find that I can't work efficiently when the TV is on because I involuntarily pay attention to what is happening on it.

How do they account for things like this?
1.7 / 5 (6) Jul 13, 2016
Didn't they just find our "free will" is really our emotions acting before we even make the decision?
not rated yet Jul 13, 2016
"How do they know it was voluntary?"

No one is saying that it absolutely has to be, it is nonetheless appears to be a choice made by the subject.
5 / 5 (5) Jul 13, 2016
@gkam: Yes, if course there is no "free will" in the sense that the brain-body system makes a decision on a finegrained level, it just follow physical laws. A sense of "free will" may have evolved for some reason (as it seems universal), perhaps because it lends a consistent sense of "self" to awareness, though I don't know of a consensus theory on that.

Anyway, the nice thing is that scientists can see that in certain situations, where the reaction is routed up to 7 s before the subject becomes aware of that he/she is doing/going to do.

But these sensor input to motor output reactions has nothing to do with emotions as such, who are a subset of reactions, often forming a persistent state controlled by hormones. Having emotions makes more evolutionary sense than having an (erroneous) sense of free will, they help control the organism behavior in essential situations (controls eating, makes for fleeing from danger, et cetera).
1.7 / 5 (6) Jul 13, 2016
Torborn, have you read of "mind organs", a label given by a researcher which involves the host of ductless glands which are responsible for what we really do? There were many more than I had understood. Maybe I can find the info for you.

We only think we act rationally.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 14, 2016
Start with assumption, "We have free will." Look for evidence: Found!

Actually, making a CONSCIOUS "choice," by using a supposed independent ability to pick something specific, is really just simply acknowledging which option we are attracted to the most, and then heading in that direction. This is always controlled by an arising desire.

And we always head in the direction of the strongest desire, which arises on its own into consciousness, as do all thoughts and feelings. "We always do what we want, but we can't will what we want," - Schopenhauer

Consciousness is late to the party, so to speak, after all options and then desire arises, initiating forward motion. Saying, "I chose it!" is an illusion and a boost to the ongoing creation of the illusory ego, which is what most people seem to think they are; or, more accurately, what Consciousness is tricked into thinking it is, after birth on planet Earth.
not rated yet Jul 14, 2016
Although, you may think that your desire IS your "choice," its important to remember that we don't really consciously create desire. If we could, we would all be walking around in a state of bliss all the time, creating a strong enough desire to deal with anything. But we aren't in a state of bliss all the time because we don't have this power. And besides that, the WANTING to attempt to do that, itself, would already be a desire arising on its own!

But prove me wrong. Choose right now to change your personal sexuality to another type. From whatever you are, pick another one - any one of the others...

What... you don't want to do that? Then just choose to WANT to do that. Right now, in this moment, just do it...

But alas, you can't, can you... How can anyone claim to have free will if they can only "choose" what they ALREADY desire and not what they don't? If you can't choose what you don't want, then how is that "free" and a power we control?
5 / 5 (1) Jul 14, 2016
Those who conducted the study have committed the fallacy of begging the question. That is, they have assumed free will exists and have made attempts to confirm this. In fact, they have demonstrated apparent choice which is still a product of prior causes that lie outside of the subjects' capacity of control. In studies of free will, one might wish to begin with the question: "Of what is the will, free?' Unless it can be shown that something called 'the will' is free of prior causes, it seems that our choices, decisions, and actions, will invariably be a product of prior causes beyond our control.
not rated yet Jul 14, 2016
"But prove me wrong. Choose right now to change your personal sexuality to another type. From whatever you are, pick another one - any one of the others..."

Just because you can't do it for some things doesn't mean you can't do it for all things, and how do you know you can't? Have you tried? Perhaps it takes some time and effort.

Everybody and everything are bound with causes and conditions, but that doesn't mean they cannot be free as well - just the degree to which they are changes with the causes and conditions. I can't sit and run at the same time.

You may not be free to change your sexuality directly, but you are free to take some hormone or mind-altering drug that does it for you - supposing such can exist, and we must if we argue that sexuality is purely a matter of bodily function and no psychology is involved.

Question is, why would you do that to yourself? Perhaps the will to live a normal life overrides the will to prove points
not rated yet Jul 14, 2016
In fact, they have demonstrated apparent choice which is still a product of prior causes that lie outside of the subjects' capacity of control. In studies of free will, one might wish to begin with the question: "Of what is the will, free?'

Of what indeed. The problem is twofold:

First is the problem of making an arbitrary distinction of what the "subject" is. For example, you on a bicycle. Is the subject you alone, or do you include the bicycle? Certainly the act of riding the cycle limits your choices as to what you can do, and also opens other choices that would not exist without.

If you take a person and isolate them in a vacuum, they stop working, but if you include the bicycle, why not include the sun and the stars? It's all there, however small the effect.

The second problem is the meaning of "free". Can anything be free, or is everything just deterministic fate.

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