Scientists show choices are freer than previously thought, confirming free will’s existence

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A customer looks at bananas in a supermarket in Sydney April 27, 2011
A customer looks at bananas in a supermarket in Sydney April 27, 2011 Reuters/Daniel Munoz

Free will exists, according to experts at the Charité–Universitätsmedizin Berlin. For decades, scientists have speculated that free will is an illusion, stemming from the unconscious brain process, but the new research proves that decision-making is part of conscious control.

In the study, the researchers asked the participants to enter into a duel with a computer specially designed to predict when a subject would move, aiming to out-manoeuvre the player. The team manipulated the game in favour of the computer as soon as brain waves indicated that the player was about to make a move.

Measuring the participants’ brain waves using electroencephalography, the experts determined that people could still cancel a movement even after the unconscious part of the brain had begun the process, until the "point of no return" in the decision-making process, in which cancellation is no longer possible.

The goal of the research was to find out whether the presence of early brain waves means that further decision-making is automatic and not under conscious control or whether the person can still cancel the decision, said lead researcher John-Dylan Haynes in a press release.

World experts have been debating about conscious will and determinism in human decision-making since 1980s. US researcher Benjamin Libet showed waves of brain activity representing unconscious brain processes that lead to conscious decisions. Libet referred to the brain waves as “readiness potential,” occurring even before a person makes a conscious decision.

“A person's decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves. They are able to actively intervene in the decision-making process and interrupt a movement," Haynes said. "Previously people have used the preparatory brain signals to argue against free will. Our study now shows that the freedom is much less limited than previously thought. However, there is a 'point of no return' in the decision-making process, after which cancellation of movement is no longer possible."

The study is evidence that control over actions can be retained for much longer. The team said that further studies are being planned to investigate more on the process in decision-making.