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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.

An fMFI scan shows free will in the prefrontal cortex

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!


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21 Comment on this post

  1. Anthony Drinkwater

    Sorry to disagree, Simon, but my own data (soon to be published in the journal of the Association Pour Réalitè Immimente Linguistique Fabuleuse Ontologique Ou Fabuleuse) demonstrates beyond doubt that free will exists only in the small right toenail.

  2. I’m afraid this is old news. A similar study had already found and sucessfully transplanted the Free Will to animals and robots April last. The first subject was a fish, and the second a mechanized cuckoo. No one took that experiment seriously, though.

  3. Very nice piece, Simon. The groundbreaking work of Astley & al. definitely deserves greater exposure…

  4. The best part of your paper was the Functional Metaphysical Field Imager. A very useful tool for philosophers indeed 🙂

  5. There is nothing confused about the idea of spotting phenomenal consciousness on a brain scan. Phenomenal consciousness may turn out to be identical to some brain state. I’m having a harder time seeing how free will might be seen on a brain scan, but the idea that it might be disconfirmed by neuroscience is not at all confused. It hasn’t been, and it seems unlikely that it ever will, but it seems possible in principle. The line between revision and elimination is hard to pin down, but there are conceivable neuroscientific results that surely cross over into the latter (suppose it turned out we discovered that the supplementary motor cortex was disconnected from the cortical areas involved in deliberation, but connected to receptors that pick up signals from space).

    1. Hi Neil, thank you for your comments!

      Before briefly responding, let me beg a little intrepretative charity – this is only supposed to be a brief, funny blog post directed at the general intelligent reader, not a research paper in Neuroethics, the journal you edit … so in some ways I’ve been speaking (and will continue to speak) with less than complete precision 😉

      “There is nothing confused about the idea of spotting phenomenal consciousness on a brain scan. Phenomenal consciousness may turn out to be identical to some brain state.”

      I’m skeptical about this claim. Phenomenal consciousness and brain states seem too different to me to “turn out to be” the very same thing.
      But, at any rate, if you want to claim that you’ve spotted phenomenal consciousness on a brain scan, you better first have a *really* convincing philosophical argument for the claim that it’s really a brain state (and not just any old brain state either – but a particular, identifiable one). Since nobody has provided that argument yet (of course, some are trying), given our *current* state of philosophical knowledge, the idea of spotting free will on a brain scan really is confused. The project that needs to be done, then, is (at most) neuroscientifically informed philosophy, not pure neuroscience. And that’s all I was really saying.

      ***(An analogy to the discission we just had:
      – Holmes: My dear Watson, you need to examine the evidence carefully, you’re not going to see the murderer’s name printed in giant letters on the front page of the newspaper!
      – Watson: But Holmes, it might well appear there – right after you’ve identified him.
      – Holmes: My dear Watson, you’re missing the elementary point! )***

      “There are conceivable neuroscientific results that [would rule out free will]”

      Again, I’m skeptical about the claim. But the same points, mutatis mutandis, apply here.
      Here’s a conceivable (if unlikely) neuroscientific result: the whole of neuroscience and a lot of physiology to date has been a massive fraud; in fact scanning people’s skulls shows them to be completely empty chambers. I can’t see how even that (amazing) result would rule out free will. At least, not wihthout a lot of prior philosophical legwork. So how could anything else on a brain scan possibly do so? (I am of course aware of the famous neurosceintific studies based on timing that attempt to show that we don’t have free will, but you yourself have rightly criticized them for their false – or at the very least, philosophically unjustified – assumptions!)


  6. Let me say, first, that my comment was not meant to indicate a problem with the original post, which was everything an April Fool’s day prank should be (first of all, not immediately obvious as a prank). I agree that identifying consciousness with a brain state requires conceptual work as well as neuroscientific. Identity claims work like this: one notes that Y has a sufficient number of features that characterize X for the claim that X=Y to be plausible. I agree that given the current state of our knowledge, the claim that consciousness, or a token conscious state, is identical to a token or type brain state is implausible. But that’s not what is at issue here. What is it at issue is whether it is a conceptual confusion to think that one might be identify a brain state with a consicous state. And I think thtat given the plausibility of representational accounts of consciousness, not to mention Block-style identity claims, not even those that philosophers who think there are strong arguments against physicalism will say that it is a conceptual confusion to think that consciousness is a brain state. If representationalism is true, say, then a lot of hard conceptual and empirical work needs to be done to say which brain states are conscious. But we can already say that the idea that we can identify one with the other might be false but isn’t confused.

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