Libet experiment and free will

Which part of the brain generates freewill?
Focus, issue 272, September 2014, p. 72, www.sciencefocus.com

The Focus magazine’s reply to this question leaves considerable gaps in terms of the present century’s neuroscience. Benjamin Libet’s experiment from the 1980s is once again confidently quoted as a refutation of the concept of freewill. This veteran

Libet's experiment: (0) repose, until (1) the readiness potential is detected, (2-Libet's W) the volunteer memorizes a dot position upon feeling their intention, and (3) then acts

Libet’s experiment: (0) repose, until (1) the readiness potential is detected, (2-Libet’s W) the volunteer memorizes a dot position upon feeling their intention, and (3) then acts

experiment showed that brain activity could be detected before the conscious awareness of the intention to perform an action, and has ever after been trundled out as a refutation of freewill. It has to be stressed that the Libet experiment and subsequent similar experiments involved trivial and pre-decided actions, such as moving a finger or flexing a wrist. All that subjects of this laboratory experiment had to actually decide was the exact timing of the trivial movement.

Since the period of the Libet experiment, it has been discovered that the brain’s dorsal stream, which is responsible for movement, is unconscious. Consciousness is not usually involved in the type of actions tested by Libet. Really, this should have been obvious from the beginning, as we are all familiar with performing actions, sometimes unintended ones, on autopilot, but we don’t take this as evidence that we perform our whole life on autopilot.

Typical recording of the readiness potential. Benjamin Libet investigated whether this neural activity corresponded to the "felt intention" (or will) to move of experimental subjects

Typical recording of the readiness potential. Benjamin Libet investigated whether this neural activity corresponded to the “felt intention” (or will) to move of experimental subjects

 

The Ventral Stream

A separate brain system, the ventral stream is responsible for developing conscious images that are projected to the brain’s reward circuit. The brain regions involved in the reward circuit are upstream of those initiating action and behaviour, and are also connected to our reasoning/thought processes. This refers to more deliberative decisions and actions rather than the trivial movements studied by Libet.

The curious nature of the short piece discussed here is compounded by a hang over from the Cartesian belief system suggesting that the process of thought is somehow separate from the physical universe or non-material, thus supposedly rendering any influence of thought on action ‘magical’. Of course modern neuroscience has for a good time identified the physical processes involved in thought within the prefrontal areas of the brain, and these, like the reward stream, lie upstream of the more deliberative decisions and actions.

Conscious Will

The concept of free will is problematic as it proposes something outside the cause and effect sequences described by science. It is perhaps more relevant to talk of conscious will, in terms of influence of the subjectively experienced reward circuit. The conscious experience itself could be identified with a fundamental aspect of the universe, such as spacetime, simply because of the lack of any place for it in the rest of physics.

Such an influence might be deterministic, in the same way that the execution of the physical law is deterministic, but might at the same time be blended with other more local influences, such as reasoning in the brain. This might leave us with something akin to turbulent or chaotic activity, which is quite distinct from randomness, although for all practical purposes it is also unpredictable.

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One Response

  1. Shaikh Raisuddin says:

    There is error of neglect of difference in speed-of-awareness and speed-of-predisposition. Both are regulated by different networks of neurons in the brain. The experiment is misleading.

    There is no Free Will. Psychologist, Skinner has proved it. Also a super-system cannot manifests the properties that are absent in the tiniest sub-systems. How a living being can manifest properties different that atoms and molecules.

    Consciousness is an Interfacing Ability caused by traffic-effect of physical entities flowing in a network of paths.

    We are struggling to understand Consciousness because we first missed to define what life is. The phenomenon of life precedes the phenomenon of consciousness. Since we failed to understand life we went astray to understand consciousness.

    I stumbled upon some very fundamental questions.
    1. What is reality?
    2. What is life?
    3. What is consciousness?
    4. What is wisdom or intelligence?
    After a prolonged study, I concluded my views on them. The definitions, I refined and refined and concluded are as follows:

    Reality
    Reality is anything that can cause an effect or can be affected by a cause. This definition is independent of sensory organs or perceptual prejudices and therefore is objective.
    A force vector alone is real. Balance of forces is permanent. At no instant of time there is ever absence of balance.

    Life
    Any system with repetitive process is a living being. All living beings confines in space have their own territory of existence and are in constant exchange of material or and energy with the surroundings.

    Consciousness
    Normally, Consciousness is defined as the quality or state of awareness, or, of being aware of an external object or something within oneself.
    In short and simple words, consciousness is ability to detect—get influenced and react (stimulus & response).
    More precisely we can say that awareness is an ability to exchange. We cannot be aware if we do not exchange.

    Consciousness is an Interfacing Ability caused by traffic-effect of physical entities while flowing in a network of paths. An interface is a shared boundary across which two separate components of a system exchange something.

    An Atom is a Living Being
    Repetitive movement of an electron in an atom makes it a living being-the tendency to sustain the process. An electron moving around a nucleus develops a magnetic field. The magnetic field in turn acts as an interfacing mechanism or a “sense of touch” with surroundings. The magnetic field or area/volume of oscillations created by moving/spinning electron is the consciousness of the electron or the charge. It will detect and react if a reality enters into its territory of influence. Consciousness is an effect of motions.

    Wisdom or Intelligence
    Wisdom or intelligence is the ability to predict rightly cause of an effect or effect of the cause

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