How a groundbreaking 1964 study 'introduced a genuine neurological argument against free will'
Brain image (Shutterstock)

For decades, neuroscientists have been debating the question: How much free will do people actually have? Why are some people inclined to make better, wiser decisions than others? And why do some people, even those considered highly intelligent, act on their worst impulses while others don't?

Those are the sort of questions that neuroscientists have been grappling with over the years.

New York City-based science writer Bahar Gholipour discussed the "death of free will" in a much-read article published by The Atlantic on September 10, 2019. And he explained why a 1964 study continued to have an impact on how some neuroscientists view that subject.

"The death of free will began with thousands of finger taps," Gholipour wrote. "In 1964, two German scientists monitored the electrical activity of a dozen people's brains. Each day for several months, volunteers came into the scientists' lab at the University of Freiburg to get wires fixed to their scalp from a showerhead-like contraption overhead. The participants sat in a chair, tucked neatly in a metal tollbooth, with only one task: to flex a finger on their right hand at whatever irregular intervals pleased them, over and over, up to 500 times a visit."

Gholipour continued, "The purpose of this experiment was to search for signals in the participants' brains that preceded each finger tap. At the time, researchers knew how to measure brain activity that occurred in response to events out in the world — when a person hears a song, for instance, or looks at a photograph —but no one had figured out how to isolate the signs of someone's brain actually initiating an action."

That German experiment from 57 years ago, according to Gholipour, was groundbreaking because it showed "the brain readying itself to create a voluntary movement."

Gholipour explained, "This momentous discovery was the beginning of a lot of trouble in neuroscience. Twenty years later, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet used the Bereitschaftspotential (readiness potential) to make the case not only that the brain shows signs of a decision before a person acts, but that, incredibly, the brain's wheels start turning before the person even consciously intends to do something. Suddenly, people's choices — even a basic finger tap — appeared to be determined by something outside of their own perceived volition."

Libet, according to Gholipour, "introduced a genuine neurological argument against free will."

"Over time, the implications have been spun into cultural lore," Gholipour wrote in 2019. "Today, the notion that our brains make choices before we are even aware of them will now pop up in cocktail-party conversation or in a review of Black Mirror. It's covered by mainstream journalism outlets, including This American Life, Radiolab, and this magazine. Libet's work is frequently brought up by popular intellectuals such as Sam Harris and Yuval Noah Harari to argue that science has proved humans are not the authors of their actions."