I posted this entry ten seconds ago

A neuroscience study has scientists and philosophers revisiting the free will and human decision making debate.

Using sophisticated brain imaging techniques, the researchers found that they can predict people’s simple decisions up to 10 seconds before they’re conscious of making such a choice.

“It seems that your brain starts to trigger your decision before you make up your mind,” said the study’s lead author, John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. “We can’t rule out free will, but I think it’s very implausible. The question is, can we still decide against the decision our brain has made?”

This finding doesn’t actually seem as strange as it first sounds. The act of making a decision is a process, and the revelation of a lag, even one as large as ten seconds, between the point of decision and the point of action sounds plausible. Because of past research and everyday personal experience, we may simply be anchored on the idea that the decision-to-action should happen in a few milliseconds.


  • http://makingmedicaldecisions.com Alan Schwartz

    Compilers that turn computer program code (written by people) into machine language (runnable by computers) often add optimization logic to the program to make it run faster. One common optimization is branch target prediction, where the compiler guesses which of two choices is more likely to be made at some point in the program, and computationally advantages that choice (by doing a lot of advance work assuming that that choice will be taken, for example). How good an optimization this is depends on many factors, including the specific hardware architecture of the processor and the ability of the compiler to guess right on which branch is more likely.

    If the brain, as a highly optimized biological computing architecture, goes ahead and begins preparation for a choice before the choice is consciously activated, this need not rule out free will. Of course, it doesn’t rule it in either. Dr. Haynes’s question is thus right on point — can we demonstrate examples of when the brain has clearly prepared for choice A, but the person in fact chooses B? This looks to be a great line of inquiry going forward.

  • matthew mcclain

    Anecdotal consideration: The majority of the time I spend driving is with my wife in the car. I use her as an active co-pilot. Yesterday I’m driving without my wife in the car, but rather on the cell phone. I start to ask her if I’m clear to change lanes, but just barely stop myself in time to not look silly.

    Was the “question asking sequence” a choice, pattern, decision, habit… who knows, whatever. Whatever it was, it was prepared for, initiated, and aborted at the 11th hour. That part, the abortive action, sure felt like a rationally informed choice. I guess the matter might hinge on this, could you predict my abrupt stopping of the question 10 seconds in advance?