Bereitschaftspotential and Free Will

The headline reads “A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked.” It was prominently displayed at the top of the default Google News Spotlight for several days. The article was at The Atlantic.

The headline is wrong, but the underlying story describes a blow to Determinism that I want to bring to your attention. The news hook behind this particular story is new research getting underway to investigate findings originally reported in a 2012 paper. It provides a needed corrective to a meme that has been going around since the 1980s.

Bereitschaftspotential

Bereitschaftspotential means “readiness potential,” and was first reported in 1964 by a pair of researchers at the University of Freiburg in Germany. They found that latent background brain activity seemed to rise just before a movement was made by a subject.

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet looked into this Readiness Potential. He asked subjects to watch a clock and report the time it was when they decided to perform a requested motion. He discovered that a heightened background level of brain activity was noticeable between a third and a half of a second before the time the subjects reported choosing to act.

The finding that ‘elevated brain activity preceded the conscious decision to act’ was widely interpreted by Evolutionists and other Atheists as proof that brain chemical interactions trigger human thoughts. This interpretation has been spread all over the internet as if it were a scientifically-proven axiom.

Libet disagreed with the overblown statements of the Determinists, and urged caution.

The 2012 research recounted in this article shows that this investigation needs to be set back to square one.

New research

A new research launch took place this year that is intended to look into the work first reported in 2012. In his article at The Atlantic, reporter Bahar Ghoulipour reviewed the 2012 work of Aaron Schurger of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris.

Schurger studied fluctuations in neuronal activity, the churning hum in the brain that emerges from the spontaneous flickering of hundreds of thousands of interconnected neurons. This ongoing electrophysiological noise rises and falls in slow tides, like the surface of the ocean—or, for that matter, like anything that results from many moving parts. “Just about every natural phenomenon that I can think of behaves this way. For example, the stock market’s financial time series or the weather,” Schurger says.

From a bird’s-eye view, all these cases of noisy data look like any other noise, devoid of pattern. But it occurred to Schurger that if someone lined them up by their peaks (thunderstorms, market records) and reverse-averaged them in the manner of Kornhuber and Deecke’s innovative approach [from 1964], the results’ visual representations would look like climbing trends (intensifying weather, rising stocks). There would be no  purpose behind these apparent trends — no prior plan to cause a storm or bolster the market. Really, the pattern would simply reflect how various factors had happened to coincide.

I thought, Wait a minute,” Schurger says. If he applied the same method to the spontaneous brain noise he studied, what shape would he get?  “I looked at my screen, and I saw something that looked like the  Bereitschaftspotential.” Perhaps, Schurger realized, the  Bereitschaftspotential’s rising pattern wasn’t a mark of a brain’s brewing intention at all, but something much more circumstantial.

Two years later, Schurger and his colleagues Jacobo Sitt and Stanislas Dehaene  proposed  an explanation. Neuroscientists know that for people to make any type of decision, our neurons need to gather evidence for each option. The decision is reached when one group of neurons accumulates evidence past a certain threshold. Sometimes, this evidence comes from sensory information from the outside world: If you’re watching snow fall, your brain will weigh the number of falling snowflakes against the few caught in the wind, and quickly settle on the fact that the snow is moving downward.

But Libet’s [1983] experiment, Schurger pointed out, provided its subjects with no such external cues. To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.

This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The  Bereitschaftspotential  would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.

Free Will research

The new research was launched at a special International Conference on the Neuroscience of Free Will, which was held this past March at Chapman University in Irvine, California.

The eight neuroscientists and nine philosophers involved in the new program pledge to do better this time around by asking more precise questions and designing philosophically informed experiments.”

Maybe they will come up with something useful.

In the meantime, we can continue our quarrels.

What do you think? Are you feeling your readiness potential?  Is the electrophysiological noise in your brain poised on the verge of producing a coherent thought?

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15 thoughts on “Bereitschaftspotential and Free Will”

  1. The article:

    https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/09/free-will-bereitschaftspotential/597736/

     

    “…we now know the question is much more complex and nuanced.”

    The link below is to an interview with Uri Maoz, “a psychologist and computational neuroscientist at Chapman.”  It describes the next round of research.

    https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/03/philosophers-and-neuroscientists-join-forces-see-whether-science-can-solve-mystery-free?utm_campaign=SciMag&utm_source=JHubbard&utm_medium=Facebook

     

    Thanks very much to Chef or Dime for the formatting assist.

     

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  2. Isn’t this all a matter of point of view?

    I don’t understand how the theory of readiness potential:  that “elevated brain activity precedes a conscious decision to act”  necessarily means we don’t have free will in the  first place.   What are “we”, what is consciousness, except “elevated brain activity”?

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  3. I don’t doubt the accuracy of Libet’s experiments, but it seems to me that the psychologists and philosophers are making a pretty enormous leap of inference when they make claims like the results “disprove free will”.  What the experiments of Libet and others demonstrate is that, seemingly to compensate for the very slow processing speed of the brain, there is a complex mechanism by which the brain, sensory organs, and motor mechanisms “time-stamp” events so that they are perceived as occurring in a linear chronological order which is evolutionarily advantageous in responding to events in the outside world.  This is something one encounters frequently in sensor and control systems designed by engineers: if you process the raw data and don’t account for lag times, hysteresis, and feedback effects, you end up with a system which behaves chaotically and is useless, chasing its tail due to noise in its inputs and imprecision in its outputs.  You have to filter the data to extract the useful signal from the noise and compensate for delays in the system.  The brain is the product of half a billion years of ruthless competition in this arena, so it’s no surprise it has gotten very good at making the most of what it’s made of.

    Consequently, the perception of time is very complicated, and amounts to the brain essentially lying to consciousness in order to make sense of its inputs.  Stimuli which take some time to process appear to be time-stamped so that when they are actually perceived they are seen as being in the order they originally occurred, preserving causality (which is essential to making sense of the external world).

    With all of this going on, it’s not surprising the same kind of games are being played with “free will” (whatever that is).  Even something like pressing a button with a finger requires complex processing, including a pre-planning of the movement, and that takes time (tens of milliseconds).  Just as sensory perceptions are time-stamped, the brain is editing out this perceived delay and presenting the perception that the intention and action are simultaneous.  This is just good engineering (try driving a car sometime with a half-second delay between steering inputs and the wheels moving or, even worse, a random delay between 100 and 700 milliseconds), and I don’t see any need to endow it with deep speculations about materialism, spiritualism, determinism, and free will.

    I don’t see any conflict at all between materialism and the appearance of free will.  Complex, nonlinear systems exhibit all kinds of unexpected, surprising, and fundamentally unpredictable behaviour.  Consider, for example, the humble double pendulum:

    Now, the brain is probably a hundred trillion times more complicated than this system, so why should it be surprising that the consequences of its operation, all fundamentally based upon the laws of physics as expressed in chemistry, should produce surprises which appear to defy mechanistic determinism?

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  4. I would also be sceptical of any kind of subtle inference made from EEG data other than the most obvious signals such as sleep/awakeness or reaction to sensory stimuli.  Trying to figure out what is going on inside the brain by monitoring a small number of electrical probes on the outside of the skull is like (but billions of times more hopeless than) figuring out what a computer is doing by listening to the static it emits with an AM radio sitting next the processor.  Yes, you can actually figure out some things: a computer in the idle loop often sounds different than one jumping all around in memory and doing input/output, but beyond that it’s futile.

    This is compounded when people talk about “looking for correlations in noise” and especially, as quoted in the Atlantic article, “Just about every natural phenomenon that I can think of behaves this way. For example, the stock market’s financial time series or the weather”, which goes on to claim, “if someone lined them up by their peaks (thunderstorms, market records) and reverse-averaged them in the manner of Kornhuber and Deecke’s innovative approach, the results’ visual representations would look like climbing trends (intensifying weather, rising stocks)”.  But this is just an illusion: humans’ propensity for seeing apparent patterns in random data.  If there were a real pattern there, you’d be able to predict these random walks such as weather patterns or stock prices, and you can’t.  So it seems to me that all they end up concluding is that the brain contains a randomiser which acts as a tie-breaker when making decisions.  But why should this be surprising?  Again, engineered systems use similar logic all the time (for example, deciding to tell which airplane to climb and which to descend in a TCAS conflict resolution advisory).

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  5. John Walker:
    I don’t doubt the accuracy of Libet’s experiments, but it seems to me that the psychologists and philosophers are making a pretty enormous leap of inference when they make claims like the results “disprove free will”.

    Which is what Libet said, though he also said that he did not believe Free Will.

    Similarly, though I do not believe in Determinism, I do not think Sherger’s recent work disproves Determinism.

    When it comes to brain activity, as you pointed out, we have a very long ways to go.

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  6. Hypatia:
    Isn’t this all a matter of point of view?

    I don’t understand how the theory of readiness potential:  that “elevated brain activity precedes a conscious decision to act”  necessarily means we don’t have free will in the  first place.   What are “we”, what is consciousness, except “elevated brain activity”?

    What some Determinists have been saying, since the 1980s, is that a surge of random brain activity preceded a conscious decision, therefore choices are determined by electroneurological noise in the brain.   That was always a huge stretch.   Sherger’s work simply shows that electroneurological noise is just noise, and may be somewhat related, but cannot be held to be determinitive.

    The new research just getting underway should be considered a fresh beginning from a clean slate.

    They are just now getting into the experiment design phase.

    They might be able to do some useful work, since they have a $7 million war chest, thanks to the John Templeton Foundation and the Fetzer Institute.

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  7. MJBubba:

    Hypatia:
    Isn’t this all a matter of point of view?

    I don’t understand how the theory of readiness potential:  that “elevated brain activity precedes a conscious decision to act”  necessarily means we don’t have free will in the  first place.   What are “we”, what is consciousness, except “elevated brain activity”?

    What some Determinists have been saying, since the 1980s, is that a surge of random brain activity preceded a conscious decision, therefore choices are determined by electroneurological noise in the brain.

     

    Yuh, I got that, but what I was saying is this begs the question of who,  or what,  “determines”  the “surge of random brain activity”? And for that matter, why call it “random” activity: it’s not random, it’s clearly linked to the conscious choice or activity it precedes. 

     

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  8. By the way, Libet’s Clock experiment, which measures the actual time at which a subject chooses to perform an action and the perceived time of the action, has now been implemented as a portable HTML5 application you can run in a Web browser.  The linked paper presents two experiments which can be run with the application as supplied.

    You can download the software from GitHub: txipi/Labclock-Web.  The experiments can be run from a directory on your local machine via a “file:” URL; the default password is “99”.

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  9. Is this just another way of putting the old ethologists’ query (I think maybe Konrad Lorenz?) :

    Do we run because we’re afraid, or are we afraid because we run?

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  10. Hypatia:

    MJBubba:

    Hypatia:
    Isn’t this all a matter of point of view?

    I don’t understand how the theory of readiness potential:  that “elevated brain activity precedes a conscious decision to act”  necessarily means we don’t have free will in the  first place.   What are “we”, what is consciousness, except “elevated brain activity”?

    What some Determinists have been saying, since the 1980s, is that a surge of random brain activity preceded a conscious decision, therefore choices are determined by electroneurological noise in the brain.

    Yuh, I got that, but what I was saying is this begs the question of who,  or what,  “determines”  the “surge of random brain activity”? And for that matter, why call it “random” activity: it’s not random, it’s clearly linked to the conscious choice or activity it precedes. 

    Not so clearly.   According to Libet and his followers, what he was showing was that the increased brain activity preceded the thought.   What Scherger showed is that this increased brain activity is indistinguishable from ordinary ebb and flow of brain activity noise.

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  11. Hypatia:
    Is this just another way of putting the old ethologists’ query (I think maybe Konrad Lorenz?) :

    Do we run because we’re afraid, or are we afraid because we run?

    I never understood this.   If you are running because you fear, then the act of running will intensify the feeling of fear.   But does the act of running inspire fear?   I don’t think so.

    But I do understand the relationship.  This meme originally came from William James, who was trying to have it both ways.   He proclaimed religious pluralism, but then seemed to advance Determinist interpretations of psychology.

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  12. There is nothing science could possibly learn about the brain which could in any way resolve religious and philosophical questions , unless we discover some kinda brand-name label  in somebody’s cortex, like, say Made on Mars, or Deus  Fecit.   Failing that, our main conundrum is that we can never tell cause from effect.  We’re just too finite in time and space to get the perspective from which that could be seen clearly.

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  13. John Walker:
    Complex, nonlinear systems exhibit all kinds of unexpected, surprising, and fundamentally unpredictable behaviour.  Consider, for example, the humble double pendulum

    Chaotic systems like the double pendulum are deterministic, hence the term deterministic chaos. The whole idea of chaos is that it is deterministic while still being de facto unpredictable because of the exquisite sensitivity to initial conditions, while still being predictable in principle. One must turn to quantum mechanics to find fundamentally unpredictable systems that are only predictable stochastically.

    None of this has much to do with free will, which suffers from the fundamental problem of infinite regress. If your consciousness is telling your body what to do, what’s telling your consciousness what to do? It’s turtles all the way down.

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  14. It’s late here, O Ratty, and I still have to “decide” , or “make up” my “mind” , whether or not to wash my hair tonight.  Do you know what I’ll do?  No you don’t!  But nobody is going to “choose” to act or not except “me”, whatever that is.

    Which is why at some point in such discussions about free will, I always lose patience .  What practical difference does it make to us? We’re stuck with the illusion of having to choose in any event.  We can’t escape it.  Pleasant dreams,  O Ratty, but remember: in dreams begins “responsibility”!

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