Free will detected in prefrontal cortex

April 1, 2012 • 12:55 pm

Alert reader Gregg has called my attention to a new study in neuroscience that overturns the Libet and Soon et al. studies by showing evidence for free will via brain scans.  Practical Ethics reports on the study, to appear in this week’s Science:

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.

Here’s a figure from the paper—an fMFI scan showing the transitory signature of free will (the orange area of activity) in the prefrontal cortex of a human brain:

I’ve long espoused the idea that free will is a phantasm: a comforting fiction built into us, perhaps, by natural selection, but a good scientist knows when he’s licked.  I provisionally suspend my critiques of free will.  Indeed, the newest findings mandate not compatibilism, but true dualistic free will.

50 thoughts on “Free will detected in prefrontal cortex

  1. Indeed, the newest findings mandate not compatibilism, but true dualistic free will.


    Yes, but it is an interesting thought experiment anyway: if dualism is demonstrable, then that pretty much throws out both materialistic monism and naturalism, making them falsifiable. And that entails that supernaturalism is therefore a hypothesis.

    Which is what I’ve always maintained: naturalism is a working theory, a tentative conclusion.

  2. That was cruel! When I started reading this I had that sinking feeling one gets when preparing to have a cherished belief refuted by evidence to the contrary.

    As soon as I saw the word “metaphysical” I realized what was going on here. lol

    1. I felt the same way as you Jeff, that a cherished belief of mine would be refuted by evidence. I did larf a tad rhough when I realized what was up.

  3. I was hooked until I read, “… Metaphysical Field Imager. Using functional metaphysical field imaging (fMFI), …”

    If the activity spot located in the brain is physical, it ain’t metaphysical.

    I too had that deep sinking feeling.

  4. I’m unimpressed by the unserious level of discussion exhibited by some incompatibilists in this inquiry. Rather than reasons and evidence carefully laid out and careful attention to definitions and the claims made, we get a parody of positions and dogmatic restatement rather than argument.

  5. I’m glad some of you enjoyed this, it gave me a laugh. It raises a question for me about whether the supernatural or non-natural could ever be proven to exist. Dr. Coyne’s position, as I recall/understand, is is possible (in theory) to to find evidence to support the existence of a deity. My position is that this is not possible if the deity is supernatural (which I’m pretty sure is the claim for most or all worshipped deities). If we find falsifiable evidence, then the entity in question is natural, not supernatural. I wonder if a similar line of reasoning could apply to the free will debate. If our actions are all ultimately naturally/physically caused, could there ever be evidence of free will? Can any decision be made outside of the physical constraints of natural reality? Isn’t that what a proponent of free will is ultimately claiming? Or is what we call free will simply the conscious experience of those physical realities playing out in a particular human mind?

    1. I believe the claim is that God can affect what happens in the real world. That would mean that God is at least in part physical. So a believer would say that evidence of God could be found. And indeed they often say that evidence has been found. It just turns out that the evidence referred to does not meet scientific standards of general verifiability. So some hypotheses about God are indeed scientific hypotheses, that predict that there is a real being that can do powerful things, contrary to the laws of physics, etc. I do not think this is a fundable grant project however…

  6. “If there is an interaction, then the‘‘mind’’ and ‘‘brain’’ are independent variables; the mind represents subjective experience and is therefore a non-physical phenomenon. This fact led to the need for a field theory”–Benjamin Libet, 2006

    Is the mind non-physical? I don’t know, but Jerry Coyne insists is conforms to deterministic physical laws, thus contradicting Libet.

  7. All they detected was a flash. Maybe it was the order to reach down. Saying they saw a “flash of free will” is misleading.

  8. This april fools sounds like creationists posting: “Scientists finally reproduce macro-evolution in laboratory”. Some mixture of ignorance and arrogance…

    1. Agreed. My first idea was something on the lines of “SEM image of fruit fly shows energy signature of kin selection”. Not so much funny as sad.

      Then again, I will freely admit that I never found April Fool’s Day funny anyway…

  9. You gave the game away too quickly. Metaphysical? No, that’s just too much. You should have called it something like the Quantum Unpredictability Field Collider. You would have given Chopra’s new ideas, though.

  10. As a clinical neuro-psychologist, this is the brain area that my test results show to be involved in the higher order functions of monitoring behavior, adjusting behavior to fit what is observed and making novel decisions, including those resulting from moral reasoning.

    This still leaves a lot of actions that are relegated to automatic “knee jerk” circuits further back in the brain closer to the motor strip. Such well practiced behaviors can be quite complex. Others are the result of social conditioning.

    There is still the question of how much this free-will, adjusted behavior and novel decision making is influenced by the current environment, both internal and external.

    Decision making behavior is influenced by the person’s emotional state, physical comfort, wellness, hormones and any other substance that crosses the blood brain barrier and affects the neurons.

    Decision making behavior is also influenced by external cues that range from blatant, through barely perceptible to sub-conscious. In order to see how powerful these influences are we only have to look at videos of Darren Brown’s ability to make people “freely” choose the things he has surreptitiously programmed into their brains, sometimes as the result of elaborate schemas that take months to set up.

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