New Study Detects Free Will in the Prefrontal Cortex (UPDATED)
An impressive study to be released in the journal Science on Monday uses new imaging techniques to reveal exercises of free will occurring in the brain. The authors scanned participants in their experiments who were choosing a playing card from a freshly shuffled deck. One group of subjects were asked to: “Pick a card, any card” (using their free choice), whereas a control group were asked to select various specific cards (simply obeying a command). The explanation of how precisely free will was detected is somewhat technical, but it can be roughly understood this way: by subtracting the brain activity of the control group from those in the free will group, the experimenters were able to observe free will in the differences. They found numerous traces of free will occurring in the prefrontal cortex, which has traditionally been thought to be the seat of executive control.
According to the authors of the study, previous neuroscientific studies have failed to detect free will because they were looking for causation in the wrong place, or at the wrong level. Most neuroscientific techniques are aimed at detecting patterns of activity at a physical level, whether macro-level, cellular, or atomic. For example, the common fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technique essentially measures differences in blood flow to various areas of the brain. As a result, previous studies have only been able to detect the physical causes of our thoughts and actions. The group now publishing in Science has developed a new type of scanner called a Metaphysical Field Imager. Using functional metaphysical field imaging (fMFI), the researchers can detect energy patterns as they occur at sub-physical (i.e. metaphysical) levels. When superimposed over a map of the physical brain, fMFI is able to reveal the exact timing and location of flashes of free will in the brain, as people make decisions. The experimenters were able to show that, in their experiments, a flash of free will occurred in the prefrontal cortex immediately before a playing card was freely picked, strongly indicating that the free will there produced the relevant behaviour.
This is a truly exciting development for neuroscientists – though perhaps it will be less welcomed by philosophers, who may soon be left behind by our developing scientific understanding of the mind. The authors of the study plan to use fMFI in future experiments to see whether free will is involved in our belief forming processes, and also to detect and measure other mental phenomena such as: intentions, moral responsibility, consciousness, rationality, well-being, and the meanings of thoughts.
UPDATE April 4, 2012:
For the avoidance of doubt – as most readers recognized, this post was an April Fool’s joke.
Some readers thought the joke was on those who take the idea of free will seriously. This is a mistake! The joke was on those who think that the existence of free will could be confirmed or disconfirmed by neuroscience (Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne – I mean you!) The idea of spotting free will on a brain scan is ridiculous and confused – but no more ridiculous than the idea of spotting rationality, phenomenal consciousness, well-being or meaning on a brain scan – and these things do exist (even if they are non-physical things that are philosophically puzzling, and difficult to fit into a naturalistic world-view). Philosophy can be informed by neuroscience, and neuroscience can be informed by philosophy, but philosophy is no more in danger of being superseded by neuroscience than neuroscience is in danger of being superseded by brains.
And the problem of free will? It’s still a deep philosophical (and deeply philosophical) problem!