Nav: Home

What free will looks like in the brain

July 13, 2016

Johns Hopkins University researchers are the first to glimpse the human brain making a purely voluntary decision to act.

Unlike most brain studies where scientists watch as people respond to cues or commands, Johns Hopkins researchers found a way to observe people's brain activity as they made choices entirely on their own. The findings, which pinpoint the parts of the brain involved in decision-making and action, are now online, and due to appear in a special October issue of the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics.

"How do we peek into people's brains and find out how we make choices entirely on our own?" asked Susan Courtney, a professor of psychological and brain sciences. "What parts of the brain are involved in free choice?"

The team devised a novel experiment to track a person's focus of attention without using intrusive cues or commands. Participants, positioned in MRI scanners, were left alone to watch a split screen as rapid streams of colorful numbers and letters scrolled past on each side. They were asked simply to pay attention to one side for a while, then to the other side -- when to switch sides was entirely up to them. Over an hour, the participants switched their attention from one side to the other dozens of times.

Researchers monitored the participants' brains as they watched the media stream, both before and after they switched their focus.

For the first time, researchers were able to see both what happens in a human brain the moment a free choice is made, and what happens during the lead-up to that decision -- how the brain behaves during the deliberation over whether to act.

The actual switching of attention from one side to the other was closely linked to activity in the parietal lobe, near the back of the brain. The activity leading up to the choice -- that is, the period of deliberation -- occurred in the frontal cortex, in areas involved in reasoning and movement, and in the basal ganglia, regions deep within the brain that are responsible for a variety of motor control functions including the ability to start an action. The frontal-lobe activity began earlier than it would have if participants had been told to shift attention, clearly demonstrating that the brain was preparing a purely voluntary action rather than merely following an order.

Together, the two brain regions make up the core components underlying the will to act, the authors concluded.

"What's truly remarkable about this project," said Leon Gmeindl, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins and lead author of the study, "is that by devising a way to detect brain events that are otherwise invisible -- that is, a kind of high-tech 'mind reading' -- we uncovered important information about what may be the neural underpinnings of volition, or free will."

Now that scientists have a way to track choices made from free will, they can use the technique to determine what's happening in the brain as people wrestle with other, more complex decisions. For instance, researchers could observe the brain as someone tried to decide between snacking on a doughnut or on an apple -- watching as someone weighed short-term rewards against long-term rewards, and perhaps being able to pinpoint the tipping point between the two.

"We now have the ability to learn more about how we make decisions in the real world," Courtney said.

The research team also included former Johns Hopkins doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows Yu-Chin Chiu, Michael S. Esterman, and Adam S. Greenberg. The paper is dedicated to the last author of the study, Steven Yantis, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences who died of cancer in 2014.
-end-
This research was supported by National Institutes of Health grants T32EY07143, T32AG027668, F31-NS055664, R01-MH082957, and R01-DA013165.

Related video here

Johns Hopkins University

Related Brain Activity Articles:

More brain activity is not always better when it comes to memory and attention
Potential new ways of understanding the cause of cognitive impairments, such as problems with memory and attention, in brain disorders including schizophrenia and Alzheimer's are under the spotlight in a new research review.
Researchers to predict cognitive dissonance according to brain activity
A new study by HSE researchers has uncovered a new brain mechanism that generates cognitive dissonance -- a mental discomfort experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs or values, or experiences difficulties in making decisions.
Brain activity can be used to predict reading success up to 2 years in advance
By measuring brainwaves, it is possible to predict what a child's reading level will be years in advance, according to research from Binghamton University, State University of New York.
There's a close association between magnetic systems and certain states of brain activity
Scientists from the University of Granada (UGR) have proven for the first time that there is a close relationship between several emerging phenomena in magnetic systems (greatly studied by condensed matter physicists) and certain states of brain activity.
Hormone can enhance brain activity associated with love and sex
The hormone kisspeptin can enhance activity in brain regions associated with sexual arousal and romantic love, according to new research.
Manipulating brain activity to boost confidence
Is it possible to directly boost one's own confidence by directly training the brain?
Brain activity may predict risk of falls in older people
Measuring the brain activity of healthy, older adults while they walk and talk at the same time may help predict their risk of falls later, according to a study published in the Dec.
Neuro chip records brain cell activity
In order to understand how the brain controls functions, such as simple reflexes or learning and memory, we must be able to record the activity of large networks and groups of neurons.
Too much activity in certain areas of the brain is bad for memory and attention
Researchers led by Dr Tobias Bast in the School of Psychology at The University of Nottingham have found that faulty inhibitory neurotransmission and abnormally increased activity in the hippocampus impairs our memory and attention.
Brain changes after menopause may lead to lack of physical activity
Researchers from the University of Missouri have found a connection between lack of ovarian hormones and changes in the brain's pleasure center, a hotspot in the brain that processes and reinforces messages related to reward, pleasure, activity and motivation for physical exercise.

Related Brain Activity Reading:

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Changing The World
What does it take to change the world for the better? This hour, TED speakers explore ideas on activism—what motivates it, why it matters, and how each of us can make a difference. Guests include civil rights activist Ruby Sales, labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, author Jeremy Heimans, "craftivist" Sarah Corbett, and designer and futurist Angela Oguntala.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#521 The Curious Life of Krill
Krill may be one of the most abundant forms of life on our planet... but it turns out we don't know that much about them. For a create that underpins a massive ocean ecosystem and lives in our oceans in massive numbers, they're surprisingly difficult to study. We sit down and shine some light on these underappreciated crustaceans with Stephen Nicol, Adjunct Professor at the University of Tasmania, Scientific Advisor to the Association of Responsible Krill Harvesting Companies, and author of the book "The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World".