Does free will truly exist?
According to a new study, maybe not. It appears that we may have less control over our personal choices than we think. Unconscious brain activity seems to determine our choices well before we are even aware of them.
Researchers at the Future Minds Lab at UNSW School of Psychology in Australia were able to predict basic choices participants made BEFORE they consciously declared their decisions. Their findings were published last week in the journal Scientific Reports.
For the experiment, the researchers asked 14 participants to freely choose between two visual patterns – one of red horizontal stripes and one of green vertical stripes – before consciously imagining them while being observed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI).
They were given a maximum of 20 seconds to choose between the patterns. Once they'd made a decision, they pressed a button and had 10 seconds to visualize the pattern as hard as they could. Next, they were asked "what did you imagine?" and "how vivid was it?" They answered these questions by pressing buttons.
The results were unsettling.
Scientists were able to predict which pattern people would choose before their thoughts even became conscious.
Here is an explanation of the results, from the UNSW press release:
Not only could the researchers predict which pattern they would choose, they could also predict how strongly the participants were to rate their visualizations. With the assistance of machine learning, the researchers were successful at making above-chance predictions of the participants' volitional choices at an average of 11 seconds before the thoughts became conscious.
The brain areas that revealed information about the future choices were located in executive areas of the brain – where our conscious decision-making is made – as well as visual and subcortical structures, suggesting an extended network of areas responsible for the birth of thoughts. (source)