So it turns out that there are neurons in your brain that know you are about to make a movement the better part of a second before you know it yourself. What does that mean?
It might be tempting to conclude that free will is an illusion. Some have believed this since the days of Libet, who recorded EEG and found it contained a specific pattern that predicted his subjects movements before they felt the conscious will to act. EEG measures electrical activity on the surface of the head, combining information from billions of neurons; Fried and his colleagues have gone further, by finding individual neurons that do this.
But before reaching any sweeping conclusions, it is important to remember that this study looked at a very rudimentary kind of action. The decision to move a finger hardly ranks as the same kind of free will we exercise when we make moral choices or major life decisions. To conclude that we aren’t fully responsible for our actions, for example, would be extremely far-fetched.
And lets consider two more things. First, Fried and his colleagues used their patients’ reports on decision-to-move times; it is possible that people are just very bad at accurately remembering or reporting when they made such decisions (although it is unlikely that they would be wrong to the tune of over a second). Second, the decision to move a finger – especially when that’s the only thing you are supposed to do – might develop gradually rather than occurring at a single time. (Try it yourself: hold your finger against a surface, and wait till the urge to tap it causes you to. You may find that this urge isn’t an all-or-none thing, and you wait till it is strong enough to actually go ahead.)
Even with the above caveats, though, these findings are mind-boggling. They indicate that some activity in our brains may significantly precede our awareness of wanting to move. Libet suggested that free will works by vetoing: volition (the will to act) arises in neurons before conscious experience does, but conscious will can override it and prevent unwanted movements.
Other interpretations might require that we reconstruct our idea of free will. Rather than a linear process in which decision leads to action, our behavior may be the bottom-line result of many simultaneous processes: We are constantly faced with a multitude of options for what to do right now – switch the channel? Take a sip from our drink? Get up and go to the bathroom? But our set of options is not unlimited (i.e., the set of options we just mentioned is unlikely to include “launch a ballistic missile”). Deciding what to do and when to do it may be the result of a process in which all the currently-available options are assessed and weighted. Rather than free will being the ability to do anything at all, it might be an act of selection from the present range of options. And the decision might be made before you are even aware of it. Think about that next time you reach for the remote.