Does ‘free will’ stem from brain noise?

Our ability to make choices — and sometimes mistakes — might arise from random fluctuations in the brain’s background electrical noise, according to a recent study. New research shows how arbitrary states in the brain can influence apparently voluntary decisions.

“How do we behave independently of cause and effect?” said Jesse Bengson, a postdoctoral researcher at the center and first author on the paper. “This shows how arbitrary states in the brain can influence apparently voluntary decisions.”

The brain has a normal level of “background noise,” Bengson said, as electrical activity patterns fluctuate across the brain. In the new study, decisions could be predicted based on the pattern of brain activity immediately before a decision was made.

Bengson sat volunteers in front of a screen and told them to fix their attention on the center, while using electroencephalography, or EEG, to record their brains’ electrical activity. The volunteers were instructed to make a decision to look either to the left or to the right when a cue symbol appeared on screen, and then to report their decision.

The cue to look left or right appeared at random intervals, so the volunteers could not consciously or unconsciously prepare for it.

The brain has a normal level of “background noise,” Bengson said, as electrical activity patterns fluctuate across the brain. The researchers found that the pattern of activity in the second or so before the cue symbol appeared — before the volunteers could know they were going to make a decision — could predict the likely outcome of the decision.

“The state of the brain right before presentation of the cue determines whether you will attend to the left or to the right,” Bengson said.

Libet’s experiment raised questions of free will — if our brain is preparing to act before we know we are going to act, how do we make a conscious decision to act? The new work, though, shows how “brain noise” might actually create the opening for free will, Bengson said.

I was thinking of those ‘learned’ theologians of centuries past who ‘found’ the connection between free will and God. Obviously they had no idea of the wiring of the human brain. And some still look to these men with admiration.


10 thoughts on “Does ‘free will’ stem from brain noise?

  1. Peer-reviewed articles* in scientific journals over the period from Nov. 12, 2012 through December 31, 2013:
    Only one article, by a single author in the Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, rejected man-made global warming.

    *2,258 articles, written by a total of 9,136 authors.

  2. So does brain “noise” include immediate stress? I sometimes make a quick decision just to make a decision so the stress ends.

  3. I read anearlier study on this topic a few years ago with similar results- that our brain chooses before we do. Why and how this happens are pertinent questions. Can this fact relate to human will as we ‘choose’ good over evil ( or not!) Maybe we are preprogrammed for good or evil from birth.

  4. So if we are programed during gestation are people responsible for their actions? What would this theory do to the crime and justice system?

  5. Judge shoots down California teacher-tenure laws.

    More disturbing news brought on by conservative politics.

    Just like industry did years ago after busting unions, you will see teachers who are older and experienced being purged because they are at the top of their pay scale and with more vacation and medical benefits. After these once tenured teachers are purged, their salary can be used to put two recent college grads into classrooms.

    Of course they are selling it as the need to make it impossible to get rid of low-performing teachers. Don’t swallow this bull, its about the dollars…plan and simple.

    The other casualty will be the protection of science teachers who refuse to present, “Intelligent Design” as an alternative to “Evolution”. Religious Fanatics who took over school boards like we saw in Dover, Pennsylvania. They wanted to fire any science teacher who refused to teach intelligent design as science. It was the teacher’s tenure that prevented this. This also came up on trial and it was the Religious Fanatics who were found lying under oath.

    1. Wow! My first thought was of the crappy teachers I put up with because they had tenure. Then after doing minimal research, I found out there is a whole other side. I do know that both U.T. and B.G.S.U. don’t like tenure because they can (and do) hire “part time” instructors at a fraction of the cost. And these part-timers really suck at teaching. I also know of a case in a Northwest Ohio school district where only tenure saved a teacher from being fired because they did not want to teach “intelligent design.”

  6. Hello All,

    I have been doing some follow up thinking on the judge who shot down the California teacher-tenure laws.

    This latest development has me thinking and historically relating to the destruction of “The Library of Alexandria” which ended one of the largest and most significant treasured libraries of the ancient world.

    The legendary remark of Amr ibn al `Aas when the Muslims captured Alexandria, Egypt in 642 AD. When he was asked what to do with the library, his reply was, “If the books agree with the Koran, they are not necessary and maybe burned. If they disagree with the Koran they are pernicious and must be burned”.

    Today there are many Reactionary Conservatives with this same attitude as Amr ibn al `Aas. “If it agrees with me, then it is not necessary and maybe destroyed, if it disagrees with me then it MUST be destroyed.”

    This California judge’s latest ruling has reversed many decades of judicial rulings on this issue. In the 1930’s through the 60’s when Unions, and any employment tenure were being challenged in the courts, judges constantly ruled that the workers had the right to unionize and protect those whom contributed their life’s longevity to that employment.

    This reversal in long standing employment rights of “Working Middle Class” values may have just been destroyed, or at least been severely damaged for the long term.

  7. I have off today and I have time to be philosophically thinking.

    What my mind wandered onto was the trial and execution of Socrates that took place in 399 BC.

    Socrates was tried on two charges:

    1. Corrupting the youth by teaching his students to employ “Critical Thinking” and a to ask questions to challenge someone’s true or accurate knowledge on a subject. We refer to this today as “Socratic Irony”.

    2. Failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges, and “introducing new deities”. Socrates sin, and crime was not teaching enough religion for the Religious Fanatics in Athens of his day.

    In my opinion this, at best misguided judge, (and I would have to ask to how much of his ruling was based on “conservative bought and paid” for legal opinions); in California has just done to the teaching profession across the nation as I would equate to those who ruled to convict, and sentenced to death Socrates by being forced to drink hemlock by his own hands.

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