The science of psych

The Greatest Magic Trick Ever, Part I

"Free will" is the greatest magic trick ever.

There's one magic trick we are fooled by consistently, every day. It's so convincing that most people don't even believe it's a trick, and even those who do are STILL fooled by it. What is it?

It's the illusion of free will.

Yes, free will is an illusion. But wait, every time you consciously decide to lift your arm, it happens. And you can also choose not to lift your arm, and it doesn't happen. That's evidence of real control over your behavior, right? Well, not exactly. Evidence suggest that your brain makes these kinds of decisions without you ("you" being your consciousness), and then informs you of it later. You're just along for the ride, pretending that you're calling the shots.

The first startling evidence of this phenomenon came in the 1980s when Benjamin Libet asked people to press a button at a time of their choosing, and to note the exact moment they chose to press it. Meanwhile measurements of electrical activity in their brains indicated that their brains actually set their fingers in motion a full third to half a second before the subjects had any conscious awareness of what they were about to do. More recent fMRI work published last week in Nature Neuroscience shows that the brain makes up its mind whether to press a button with the left or right hand up to 7 seconds before you're aware of your decision. The machine knows what you're doing before you do.

See All Stories In

Magical Thinking—for Skeptics

Like it or not, we all have a little Hermione in us.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

(About 7 years ago I wrote a treatment for a movie screenplay that incorporated this concept. My Matrix-like fighting skills were based not on incredible reflexes but on anticipation. Through some fuzzy quantum entanglement scheme I could consciously read my adversaries' neural activity before they could and would, say, put my arm up to block a punch before it was even thrown. The movie was to be called Godspeed.)

If you think about it, the idea that your thoughts can lift your arm is just as crazy as telekinesis, the idea that your thoughts than lift that lamp over there. Oh, but your brain is physically connected to your arm through nerves. Sorry, that doesn't explain much. Neurons are made of matter too, so what translates the nonphysical mindstuff of your psyche to the physical substance of your neurons? How is such causality from one realm to another ultimately implemented? It's still mind over matter, pure magic.

In one sense, the idea that mind can causally influence matter is no crazier than the idea that matter gives rise to mind, and there is good evidence for the latter. That is, I am not denying the existence of consciousness--really, it's the only thing in the supposed universe for which I personally have any direct evidence at all--and of course doing stuff to the brain does stuff to the mind. But, while we can't fully exclude the possibility that mind affects matter--that, say, we have free will and can control our behavior with it--no research has ever provided even a shred of evidence to prove it.

In my next post I'll tell you why you still believe.

UPDATE: Here it is. I already know that you will click on it. 

Matthew Hutson is a science journalist in New York City.


Subscribe to Psyched!

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?