Researchers map free will, choice seconds before making decisions in brain scans

The study proves that our mind & its decision-making abilities are far more complex than we thought.


Free will is a pretty abstract concept in neuroscience, but it is generally believed that our personal choices are very much our own. New research, however, has predicted using the simple act of making a choice that we have a lot less control over our choices that we might think. Our brains seem to unconsciously make decisions several seconds before we consciously express what they are.

In a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, neuroscientists studied the pattern of free will in the brain in 14 different participants using a functional MRI (fMRI) machine. Every participant was shown two patterns – one with red, horizontal stripes and a second with green, vertical stripes. They were each given 20 seconds to choose one of the two patterns.

The 14 subjects were told to press a button once they had made a decision, and given ten seconds afterwards to visualize the pattern they had chosen as hard as they could. After this, they were told to respond to open-ended questions about what they visualized – like a description of what they had imagined and how vivid it was – all answered by the press of buttons.

Researchers map free will, choice seconds before making decisions in brain scans

Representational image. Image: Depositphotos/Daisy-Daisy

All through the experiment, an fMRI was used to monitor brain activity, and machine learning to analyze the scans. The scans predict which of the two patterns the participant would choose up to 11 seconds before the decision was made. They could also predict how vividly the participants had visualized the pattern.

Traces of thoughts exist unconsciously before they become conscious, according to the study's lead researcher, Joel Pearson from the University of South Wales, Australia. "We believe that when we are faced with the choice between two or more options of what to think about, non-conscious traces of the thoughts are there already – a bit like unconscious hallucinations," Pearson said in a statement.

"As the decision of what to think about is made, executive areas of the brain choose the thought-trace which is stronger...in other words, if any pre-existing brain activity matches one of your choices, your brain will be more likely to pick that option, as it gets boosted by the pre-existing brain activity," he added.

The red and green lines used as a visual cues in the experiment. Image credit: Scientific Reports/Pearson et al

The red and green lines used as visual cues in the experiment. Image credit: Scientific Reports/Pearson et al

This study isn't the first to come to such a conclusion. Previously, researchers have done similar studies showing that our motor decisions can be made seven to ten seconds before any conscious decision, and abstract decisions are made four seconds before they are conscious.

Collectively, these studies have brought evidence for how free will is conceived in the brain.

It has been well-documented that our brain acts before we are aware of the brain action consciously, with just a few milliseconds separating that "thought" and "action". Till now, it was thought that those milliseconds made up the only window of time for people to accept or reject those unconscious impulses consciously.

That could still very well be true – free will is likely something that both the unconscious and conscious self act on.  Some neuroscientists also claim that being controlled by our own unconscious brain is hardly an opposition to free will.

The new study puts numbers to how quickly our unconscious decisions turn to conscious ones. It doesn't necessarily prove that free will doesn't exist, but it is proof that our mind and its decision making abilities are far more complex than we thought they were.

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