Libet’s classifc experiment on the neuroscience of free will tells us more about our intuition than about our actual freedom
It is perhaps the most famous experiment in neuroscience. In 1983, Benjamin Libet sparked controversy with his demonstration that our sense of free will may be an illusion, a controversy that has only increased ever since.
Libet’s experiment has three vital components: a choice, a measure of brain activity and a clock.
The choice is to move either your left or right arm. In the original version of the experiment this is by flicking your wrist; in some versions of the experiment it is to raise your left or right finger. Libet’s participants were instructed to “let the urge [to move] appear on its own at any time without any pre-planning or concentration on when to act”. The precise time at which you move is recorded from the muscles of your arm.
The measure of brain activity is taken via electrodes on the scalp. When the electrodes are placed over the motor cortex (roughly along the middle of the head), a different electrical signal appears between right and left as you plan and execute a movement on either the left or right.
The clock is specially designed to allow participants to discern sub-second changes. This clock has a single dot, which travels around the face of the clock every 2.56 seconds. This means that by reporting position you are reporting time. If we assume you can report position accurately to 5 degree angle, that means you can use this clock to report time to within 36 milliseconds – that’s 36 thousandths of a second.
Putting these ingredients together, Libet took one extra vital measurement. He asked participants to report, using the clock, exactly the point when they made the decision to move.
Physiologists had known for decades that a fraction of a second before you actually move the electrical signals in your brain change. So it was in Libet’s experiment, a fraction of a second before participants moved, a reliable change could be recorded using the electrodes. But the explosive result was when participants reported deciding to move. This occurred in between the electric change in the brain and the actual movement. This means, as sure as cause follows effect, that the feeling of deciding couldn’t be a timely report of whatever was causing the movement. The electrode recording showed that the decision had – in some sense – already been made before the participants were aware of having taken action. The brain signals were changing before the subjective experience of taking a decision occurred.
Had participants’ brains already made the decision? Was the feeling of choosing just an illusion? Controversy has raged ever since. There is far more to the discussion about neuroscience and free will than this one experiment, but its simplicity has allowed it to capture the imagination of many who think our status as biological creatures limits our free will, as well as those who argue that free will survives the challenge of our minds being firmly grounded in our biological brains.
Part of the appeal of the Libet experiment is due to two pervasive intuitions we have about the mind. Without these intuitions the experiment doesn’t seem so surprising.
The first intuition is the feeling that our minds are a separate thing from our physical selves – a natural dualism that pushes us to believe that the mind is a pure, abstract place, free from biological constraints. A moment’s thought about the last time you were grumpy because you were hungry shatters this illusion, but I’d argue that it is still a persistent theme in our thinking. Why else would we be the least surprised that it is possible to find neural correlates of mental events? If we really believed, in our heart of hearts, that the mind is based in the brain, then we would know that every mental change must have a corresponding change in the brain.
The second pervasive intuition, which makes us surprised by the Libet experiment, is the belief that we know our own minds. This is the belief that our subjective experience of making decisions is an accurate report of how that decision is made. The mind is like a machine – as long as it runs right, we are happily ignorant of how it works. It is only when mistakes or contradictions arise that we’re drawn to look under the hood: Why didn’t I notice that exit? How could I forget that person’s name? Why does the feeling of deciding come after the brain changes associated with decision making?
There’s no reason to think that we are reliable reporters of every aspect of our minds. Psychology, in fact, gives us lots of examples of where we often get things wrong. The feeling of deciding in the Libet experiment may be a complete illusion – maybe the real decision really is made ‘by our brains’ somehow – or maybe it is just that the feeling of deciding is delayed from our actual deciding. Just because we erroneously report the timing of the decision, doesn’t mean we weren’t intimately involved in it, in whatever meaningful sense that can be.
For a simple experiment, Libet’s paradigm admits to a large number of interpretations, which I think is an important lesson. More is written about the Libet experiment every year. It has spawned an academic industry investigating the neuroscience of free will.
There are many criticisms and rebuttals, with debate raging about how and if the experiment is relevant to the freedom of our everyday choices. Even supporters of Libet have to admit that the situation used in the experiment may be too artificial to be a direct model of real everyday choices. But the basic experiment continues to inspire discussion and provoke new thoughts about the way our freedom is rooted in our brains. And that, I’d argue, is due to the way it helps us confront our intuitions about the way the mind works, and to see that things are more complex than we instinctively imagine.
Here are some common, and less common, critiques of the experiment:
The Disconnect Criticism
The choice required from Libet’s participants was trivial and inconsequential. Moreover, they were specifically told to make the choice without any reason (“let the urge [to move] appear on its own at any time without any pre-planning or concentration on when to act”). A common criticism is that this kind of choice has little to tell us about everyday choices which are considered, consequential or which are actively trying to involve ourselves in.
The timing criticism(s)
Dennett discusses how the original interpretation of the experiment assumes that the choosing self exists at a particular point and at particular time – so, for example, maybe in some central ‘Cartesian Theatre’ in which information from motor cortex and visual cortex come together, but crucially, does not have direct report of (say) the information about timing gathered by the visual cortex. Even in a freely choosing self, there will be timing delays as information on the clock time is ‘connected up’ with information on when the movement decision was made. These, Dennett argues, could produce the result Libet saw without indicating a fatal compromise for free choice.
My spin on this is that the Libet result shows, minimally, that we don’t accurately know the timing of our decisions, but inaccurate judgements about the timing of decisions doesn’t mean that we don’t actually make the decisions themselves that are consequential.
Aaron Schurger and colleagues have a nice paper in which they argue that Libet’s results can be explained by variations in spontaneous activity before actions are taken. They argue that the movement system is constantly experiencing sub-threshold variation in activity, so that at any particular point in time you are more or less close to performing any particular act. Participants in the Libet paradigm, asked to make a spontaneous act, take advantage of this variability – effectively lowering their threshold for action and waiting until the covert fluctuations are large enough to trigger a movement. Importantly, this reading weakens the link between the ‘onset’ of movements and the delayed subjective experience of making a movement. If the movement is triggered by random fluctuations (observable in the rise of the electrode signal) then there isn’t a distinct ‘decision to act’ in the motor system, so we can’t say that the subjective decision to act reliably comes afterwards.
The ‘only deterministic on average’ criticism
The specific electrode signal which is used to time the decision to move in the brain is called the readiness potential (RP). Electrode readings are highly variable, so the onset of the RP is a statistical artefact, produced by averaging over many trials (40 in Libet’s case). This means we lose the ability to detect, trial-by-trial, the relation between the brain activity related to movement and the subjective experience. Libet reports this in his original paper  (‘only the average RP for the whole series could be meaningfully recorded’, p634). On occasion the subjective decision time (which Libet calls W) comes before the time of even the average RP, not after (p635: “instances in which individual W time preceded onset time of averaged RP numbered zero in 26 series [out of 36] – which means that 28% of series saw at least one instance of W occurring before the RP).
The experiment showed strong reliability, but not complete reliability (the difference is described by Libet as ‘generally’ occurring and as being ‘fairly consistent’, p636). What happened next to Libet’s result is a common trick of psychologists. A statistical pattern is discovered and then reality is described as if the pattern is the complete description: “The brain change occurs before the choice”.
Although such generalities are very useful, they are misleading if we forget that they are only averagely true, not always true. I don’t think Libet’s experiment would have the imaginative hold if the result was summarised as “The brain change usually occurs before the choice”.
A consistent, but not universal, pattern in the brain before a choice has the flavour of a prediction, rather than a compulsion. Sure, before we make a choice there are antecedents in the brain – it would be weird if there weren’t – but since these don’t have any necessary consequence for what we choose, so what?
To my mind the demonstration that you can use fMRI to reproduce the Libet effect but with brain signals changing up to 10 seconds before the movement (and an above chance accuracy at predicting the movement made), only reinforces this point. We all believe that the mind has something to do with the brain, so finding patterns in the brain at one point which predict actions in the mind at a later point isn’t surprising. The fMRI result, and perhaps Libet’s experiment, rely as much on our false intuition about dualism as conclusively demonstrating anything new about freewill.
Tom Stafford is a Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science for the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield, UK. He is the co-author of the bestselling popular science book Mind Hacks and writes for the award-winning blog Mind Hacks which reports on psychology and neuroscience. You can follow him on Twitter at@tomstafford.
All blog posts by http://mindhacks.com/ are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. This article originally appeared as two separate articles. The original versions are here and here.