Sunday, April 13, 2008

Decisions take time

Here is some new mindreading research:
In a study published Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, researchers using brain scanners could predict people's decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of making them. ...

Haynes updated a classic experiment by the late Benjamin Libet, who showed that a brain region involved in coordinating motor activity fired a fraction of a second before test subjects chose to push a button. Later studies supported Libet's theory that subconscious activity preceded and determined conscious choice -- but none found such a vast gap between a decision and the experience of making it as Haynes' study has.

In the seven seconds before Haynes' test subjects chose to push a button, activity shifted in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of sensory integration. Haynes' team monitored these shifting neural patterns using a functional MRI machine. ...

Hallett doubts that free will exists as a separate, independent force.
This is consistent with previous research, but it does not cast any doubt on free will. It just shows that it takes a few seconds to make a conscious decision.

I have noticed this myself while riding my bike. If I see a hazard in the road, I can slam on the brakes as fast as my reaction time will allow. Reaction time is usually a tenth of a second or so. But if I see something interesting on the side of the road and have to make a deliberate decision on whether to stop, then the decision takes a few seconds. I can only make a decision faster than a second if I had already prepared a programmed response.

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