Human Free Will Beats Out Computer Intelligence in New Study

First Posted: Jan 05, 2016 08:47 AM EST

It turns out that our free will may be freer than previously thought. Scientists have taking a closer look at the conscious will and determinism in decision-making and have found that people can actually cancel a movement once the brain has started preparing it.

In the 1980s, researchers demonstrated that conscious decisions were initiated by unconscious brain processes, and that a wave of brain activity referred to as a "readiness potential" could be recorded even before the subject had made a conscious decision.

But how could the unconscious brain know in advance what decision a person is going to make at a time when they are not yet sure themselves? Until now, the existence of such preparatory brain processes has been regarded as evidence of "determinism," according to which free will is nothing but an illusion. Now, researchers have found that this isn't the case.

As part of the study, the researchers asked study participants to enter a "duel" with a computer and monitor their brain waves throughout the duration of the game using electroencephalography (EEG). A computer was then tasked with using these EEG data to predict when a subject would move, the aim being to out-maneuver the player.

"A person's decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves," said John-Dylan Haynes, one of the researchers, in a news release. "They are able to actively intervene in the decision-making process and interrupt a movement. Previously people have used the preparatory brain signals to argue against free will. Our study now shows that the freedom is much less limited than previously thought. However, there is a 'point of no return' in the decision-making process, after which cancellation of the movement is no longer possible."

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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