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.