The Neuroscience of Free Will: Everything You Need To Know

Neuroscience of Free Will Everything You Need To Know

Basically, if you ask participants in clever experimental set-ups to judge whether some event (e.g., icon moving on a computer screen) was the outcome of their agency or someone else’s (i.e., “I did that” judgments), participants tend to misjudge an outcome to be a result of their own agency if it is a positive one and misjudge an outcome to be the result of another’s agency if it is a negative one.

That is, there is a self-serving bias to explicit sense of agency judgments (For interesting results in this regard see Wegner and Wheatley’s 1999 paper here and other earlier work in psychology on attribution theory).

Cognitive neuroscientists have found a methodology to study our sense that we are in control of our actions and actional outcomes without surveying participants’ explicit “I did that” judgments. Instead, experimenters asked participants to judge the time of various events, including their movements (e.g., a button press) and the sensory outcomes of those movements (e.g., a beep following the button press).

Related: How Cognitive Distortions Harm Us

 

What researchers have found is that if you voluntarily press a button and hear a tone as a consequence, you are going to judge that the time of the movement and the time of the tone are much closer together in perceived space than if you are caused to move (via neural stimulation) and hear a tone as a consequence.

Related: Dogs Can Sense Bad People according to science

 

In other words, the perceived time of the action and the tone “bind together” in perceptual space when you act voluntarily as opposed to when you are caused to move or simply judge the time of events without acting (here). What’s intriguing about this research on agency, then, is that our perceptual judgments about the world seem to distinguish when we act from when something is done to us. Research work on intentional binding has tackled more ecologically valid issues of sense of agency when acting under emotional distress, due to coercion, and in the face of options.*

* Neuroscientists working on more representative kinds of decisions and/or sense of agency in more ecologically valid contexts include researchers in the UCL Action and Body Lab at University College London and The Brain Institute at Chapman University, among others.


Written by Scott Barry Kaufman
Originally appeared in Scientific American

 

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