Free Will, Volition, Conscious Choice, and Neuroplasticity – Over Interpretation of Brain Imaging

Free will versus determinism is one of the oldest unsolved philosophical questions.  The question is whether human beings have free will to make independent decisions, or whether decisions are completely pre determined by molecules and material physical forces, including the state of the brain. A person is considered free if, given the exact situation (and the exact brain state) different choices can be made. In the law free will means that a person can follow his own ideas, preferences, and desires. For example, an addict is not considered free concerning choices about taking drugs.

There is a vast philosophical literature on this question, but ultimately there is no agreement or answer from the arguments of the most brilliant minds in history.  The philosophical question has been complicated in modern times by the notion that energy and matter are equivalent at a deep physical level.  Therefore the notion of materialism is more complex and might assume both matter and possibly unknown forms of energy.  To make a complex subject very simple, many scientists assume that consciousness will be completely explained by the movement of molecules in the brain.  If this is assumed, and there are no unknown quantum effects of these molecules – which is what is assumed by many current scientists – then it is difficult to imagine free will.

One version of this question is the difference between voluntary and passive movement.  The well-known philosopher Wittgenstein expressed this question as: “What is left over if I subtract the fact that my arm goes up from the fact that I raise my arm?”

Recently, the question has become important because a group of neuroscientists claim to have proven, with the use of brain imaging studies, that there is no free will. The claim is that unconscious forces in the brain, before awareness, determine all human decisions, and that the brain then creates an illusion that human beings have volition and independent decision-making ability.

Such a view has important implications for society and for the law.  If they are correct then there is a question as to whether people, including criminals, are responsible for their behavior.  And increasingly neuroscience studies are being introduced at legal proceedings  (a valid neuroscience finding that is impacting the law is the proof that eye witness reports can be very inaccurate).

What does the current science show about free will?

What Does the Question Mean?

If our actions are completely determined by past physical events and molecular movement in the brain, then there is no free will, and animals and humans are basically complex robots and computers.  It was long assumed by many scientists that animals were advanced complex forms of robots (see post Animal Brains, Large and Small).

On the other hand, if a mind can initiate new actions through brain cells, there is free will.  Neuroscientists note that specific brain regions light up with each type of activity, allegedly supporting those who believe there is no free will.  Do the lit regions cause the mental activity or does the mental activity cause the brain activity?  And is it really known that these specific regions correlate with conscious or unconscious causes of behavior?

Physics Doesn’t Help

Physics doesn’t help answer the question.  In the classical physics of bouncing billiard balls, there is absolute cause and effect and no free will.  Everything is determined by pre existing events and circumstances.  Another aspect of modern physics is chaos, known popularly as the ‘butterfly effect’, whereby very small events at the beginning of an effect, such as the fluttering of butterfly wing, lead to drastically different endings such as a huge hurricane. But, the science of chaos, while extremely difficult in practice, also assumes a determined world in theory.

Modern physics has confounded this simple view, however, because it is now known that quantum mechanics is the more fundamental reality and in the quantum world there is no clear causation. There is instead uncertainty within limits. A particle can end up in different places from the exact same set of circumstances.

Also, structures inside of neurons that are critical to our consciousness (see picture of tubules, left) are very small.  They are so small that scaffolding tubules are near the size where quantum effects could occur. Quantum effects are now beginning to be seen in life, most notably in photosynthesis and chemical reactions  (see quantum biology post and post about the information language of microtubules in the neuron).

Science Looks at Conscious Mind

There have been three, often quoted, well-known studies of decision-making in the past decade.  The first used EEG as the measurement and the subjective observation was the urge to move a finger.  The second recorded fMRI pictures of the brain when a person was forced to make a decision between two alternatives. The third involved a person who made decisions with electrodes implanted in their brain prior to brain surgery for epilepsy.

The first showed some brain action about a second before the decision, but it could have been the brain gearing up to make a decision that was observed on the EEG. The second showed some brain action 4 seconds before, only slightly more than half the time, and again, the brain observations were not specific. The third showed activity in some brain cells 1.5 seconds before decision.

There are major problems with all of these studies that are prominently touted as proof of no free will.  First of all, in all the studies the decision-making was unrealistic and not related to the real ways people make decisions.  What about long term planning?  The second and bigger problem is that there is no way to know what they were measuring.  There is no current proof of a way to measure the decision making process in the brain.  There is, therefore, no way to see an image of the decision making process in the brain.

Where are Decisions Made in the Brain?

The most advanced studies in brain science show that a region called the pre supplementary motor area, called the preSME, is relevant to decision making.  It is a region, which appears to be related to “intending to act” and “controlling action.”  This area is located between the cognitive regions in the frontal lobe and the motor regions in the primary motor cortex.  Stimulation of this area produces “conscious urge to move” and high current causes muscular movement itself.  In other studies stimulating the posterior parietal cortex, causes a similar feeling of “wanting to move.” This area seems to be a bridge from visual information and motor movements.

Unfortunately, these do not prove that that is how human beings make decisions.  Also, there are probably other areas that are involved in translating other data into “wanting to move”.

None of these studies prove in any way that we know how humans use their brains to make decisions, or what parts of the brain actually make decisions in life.

Inflated Interpretations of Imaging

The great majority of studies that are being done in neuroscience involve imaging devices, where something happens in a particular part of the brain and this is picked up by seeing radiation, movement of blood, usage of glucose, or other specific tagged molecules.

Unfortunately, a great majority of the results that are picked up by the media have greatly inflated interpretations from the data (see Resources, Neuromania: On the limits of brain science by Paolo Legrenzi, Carlo Umilta and Frances Anderson)

There are inherent limitations in the use of imaging.  None of the imaging studies prove a causation of the event they are seeing and subjective human experience.

The measurements most commonly used all have significant flaws in making such an interpretation. This includes EEG (electroencephalogram – measuring brain waves from the scalp), MEG (magnetoencephalography – measuring magnetic fields from brain waves) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging – measures change in magnetism, most often with blood flow).

fMRI is especially popular because it is widely available and fairly easy to use, and basically interprets blood flow or energy usage in a particular region.There is little proof that blood flow exactly equals neuron activity, nor that it necessarily predicts the mental actions that are described.  The most recent study has shown that the signals from blood oxygen level–dependent contrast (BOLD), which is the most commonly used fMRI technique measuring blood flow, are very complex and involves activation of at least neurons and glial cells.

There is increasing evidence that studies from MRI and other imaging devices have over interpreted results.  One study, which for the first time used more than a thousand different people (most studies have small numbers), and a second study studied actions repeated more than five hundred times (most studies only repeat a few time). Both noted that interpretation is much more complex than previously known. For example, for any event there were many varied effects throughout the brain and it was impossible to really distinguish the active and inactive regions. It showed that previous research only showed the strongest regions, not the only relevant regions. Another problem was in timing sequence of the actions.  Most previous studies noted only the time sequence of the action being tested.  But, in reality there were more complex sequences before, during, and after the event.  Current studies were just not picking up the complexity of the responses.

A recent article in Nature notes that neuroscience is far from correlating brain states and subjective mental states. Before this can happen the imaging of single neurons and groups of neurons must occur. Also, fMRI is far too slow to capture millisecond events all around the brain that occur with any mental state, instead capturing an average of blood movement in the realm of seconds:

“The general public might think that this goal has already been achieved; when they read that a behavior is associated with some part of the brain, they take that statement as an explanation. But most neuroscientists would agree that, with a few notable exceptions, the relationship between neural circuits and behavior has yet to be established.“

Very recently, in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, it was noted “that the average statistical power of studies in the neurosciences is very low. The consequences of this include overestimates of effect size and low reproducibility of results.” A similar sentiment was given in Scientific American, “An Epidemic of False Claims” where it is stated:

“False positives and exaggerated results in peer-reviewed scientific studies have reached epidemic proportions in recent years. The problem is rampant in economics, the social sciences and even the natural sciences, but it is particularly egregious in biomedicine.”

More Problems with Imaging Studies

Importantly, there is reason to believe that many parts of the brain are used in events while only some parts are being measured.  There is also evidence that there are extremely varied time sequences and multiple frequencies involved that are not picked up.  A recent study showed that there are multiple different frequencies of waves involved at the same moment in single events and almost no studies are prepared to pick these up. It notes that fMRI can not track frequency events greater than 0.1 Herz. This MEG study showed that in reality multiple different events from 5 Herz to 45 Herz were occurring at the same time. Studies often assume a linear progression of events from a to b to c.  In fact, the brain operates in vast synchronous distributed networks where many different things are happening in many places at once, in differing times sequences, and sometimes for a long time (see post, What is Mind? Brain Oscillations.)

A particularly interesting, seemingly paradoxical, result recently has been the effects of psychedelics on the brain.  Clearly there is a lot occurring subjectively from the drugs but the imaging shows significant decrease in activity, definitely not what was expected.

The firm conclusion from all of this is that there is, currently, no scientific way to make an objective statement of the decision making occurring in the brain at a specific moment.

Observation of the Brain

An even more important point, in this discussion of where decision-making occurs in the brain, is whether consciousness, decision-making and free will can be studied by looking at one brain.  Is the consciousness of nature, culture, and knowledge hidden in one brain, or is it a larger interaction between many brains and minds?  It is very hard to believe that knowledge – information, science, and culture – exists in one brain and could be studied in one brain.  Human mind is the product of a large number of interactions between many different brains and minds; and culture and science are the result of countless such interactions over thousands of years.

The billiard ball view of brains and the universe is inadequate to explain the mental effects seen throughout nature and evolution. The view that mind exists as an integral aspect throughout nature – and that mind has had significant impact on cells and organisms throughout evolution – is more fruitful in understanding the great complexity emerging in research. While it is not known where or what the mind is and how it interacts with the intricate molecular details deep in the neuron, it is certainly apparent that it does.  (See post related to instantaneous very complex molecular changes that occur in the neuron with mental events).

Much of Our Mental/Brain Activity is Unconscious

Unconscious activity in humans is a certainty. We stand witness as our mind churns with images, thoughts, desires, and emotions without our willing them there. We have impulses to do things we don’t allow ourselves to do when we become aware of them. In fact, most of the sensory data the eyes, ears, and skin receive do not reach the conscious mind (see post, Limits of the Senses). If they did, we would be overrun by images, sounds and feelings.  We learn to drive cars without conscious control; this happens with any well-learned behavior (see post on Attention).  There are constant suggestions from our surroundings. Without meaning to, we fall prey to suggestions and buy items we don’t need and think negatively about people we don’t know (see post on Suggestion).

But each of these situations also offers the opportunity for free will. Subliminal messaging affects us, but willed self-suggestion is the basis of meditation, and much of our learning. These free conscious acts have been proven to change the brain in specific positive ways.  While images and feelings bubble up from within, we can choose which to notice and how to act on it.  Moral behavior depends upon this rejection and overriding of non-willed impulses.

Although all types of sensory data flood into the brain, we can choose to look at a single object or to hear one voice in a crowd. When we pay attention to a single visual or audio input, we selectively strengthen specific circuits in the visual and audio areas of the brain. In fact, some brain-damaged patients cannot hear unless they focus.  This is willed behavior.  Patients with severe degenerative disease who cannot control their muscles can now be trained to move via computer cursors and initiate activity via brain waves. This is free will.

The human brain is such a powerful tool that unless we train and exercise our will, it will act for us.  It is possible for us to live our lives without any effective free will by allowing past experience to shape all of our behavior.

Conscious Free Will and the Changing Brain

Voluntary action is characteristic of the human mind and brain. This conscious free will is utilized with attention, learning, study, and practice. Psychotherapies, meditation, exercise, and creative activities foster free will and change the physical brain structures in positive ways.

Free will exists, but it must be exercised.

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  • PJ

    Very well written, very interesting.

  • Jacopo

    This article gave me a new perspective on free will and in a lesser way also on the mind body problem, your approach seems different from the majority of current neuroscience with its strong reductionistic views.
    These problems are far from being solved but i hope that the greatest contribute in the field will be given in the future by the scientists that dont take the materialistic stand for granted (hoping that maybe we are a bit more than just a flesh computer that works deterministically)
    Thank you Dr. Lieff 🙂