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Free Won't: It May Be All That We Have (or Need)

Reflections on neuroscience, free will and procrastination.

Puppet on strings

There's lots of research evidence demonstrating that many of our actions are not initiated consciously. We're not making conscious choices to act. That said, some of the strongest neuroscientific evidence indicates that our conscious choice is capable of stopping nonconsciously initiated action. Perhaps it's not a matter of free will, but "free won't," and this matters in terms of procrastination.

There is an interesting and hotly debated line of research focused on the neuroscience of conscious choice. This research explores the relation between brain activity and voluntary motion. The most prominent of this work was a series of experiments in the late 1970's and early 1980's by Benjamin Libet (1916-2007).

The paradigm involves research participants flexing their wrists or fingers (at a moment that they choose) while the researchers measured the timing of three things:

  1. the moment of conscious awareness of an urge to flex the wrist (noted by the participant on a special clock),
  2. the moment that electrical activity is recorded in the brain (EEG of the motor cortex) indicating the brain's initiation of action (known as a "readiness potential"), and
  3. the moment that electrical activity is recorded in the muscles of the wrist (Electromyogram, EMG), indicating that the voluntary flex was being enacted.

Given our common sense notion of how our actions work, we might expect that we first have a conscious awareness of an intention or urge to act, then the brain activates the motor area that sends a signal to the muscles of the wrist or fingers. The surprising thing is this is not what Libet found.

The not-too-surprising finding was that when averaged across participants the results revealed that activity in the motor area of the brain preceded the electrical activity in the muscle by 550 ms (milliseconds). Our brain activity precedes our muscle activity. Surprisingly, the participants' reports of their conscious awareness of the urge to move were only 200 ms prior to the electrical activity recorded in the muscle. Brain activity preceded conscious awareness by about a third of a second! What does this imply?

The brain unconsciously initiates the process of "voluntary" action. Subsequently we become aware of this. On the basis of these results, some researchers concluded that free will is an illusion.

Adina Roskies, among other philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists, argues that ". . . neither Libet's data nor the reasoning that follows strongly support the fairly radical claims about free will that many have supposed" (Roskies, 2011; p. 11).

Libet never made a claim about free will like this. As Shaun Nichols (University of Arizona), explains, Libet expected that we could consciously VETO nonconsciously initiated action of which we become aware. In fact, Libet did experiments to test this.

"Free won't"
In this case, Libet had participants in the same basic paradigm, but he instructed the participants that once you become aware of your urge to flex, then stop it. Don't flex your fingers or wrist. Libet believed that there was a window of about 150 ms in which the participant could do this (note that the whole 200 ms between conscious awareness and muscle movement is not available, because once the spinal nerves are activated, somewhere around 50 ms before the muscle movement, this can not be stopped). The results indicated that the cortical readiness potential did develop (even earlier than in the past experiments), but this brain activity flattened out just before the muscle action, which indicated the vetoing effects of conscious choice. Libet concluded that participants were using conscious choice to veto the muscle flex at the last moment.

We have free will to abort an action. So, we may better think of volitional action in this case not as free will, but as "free won't." We can stop an action initiated by our brain nonconsciously.

This capacity of "free won't" is generated by free choice. This is our conscious will at work. As I noted with the quote with Roskies above, even Libet didn't agree with the radical claims made about free will based on his results.

There are other issues we could discuss here, and they are discussed at great length in the literature. I suggest an excellent recent edited book about this below (see W. Sinnott-Armstrong & L. Nadel). I don't want to focus on this ongoing debate, but rather I'll end by explaining what this may mean to our understanding of the breakdown of volitional action we call procrastination.

Free Won't and Procrastination
There's no doubt that many of us procrastinate in a very habitual way. Needless task delay is a pre-potent response. We don't have to think about it, and we don't. Before we even become consciously aware of it, we've moved away from the intended task. So much for free will we might conclude. We feel compelled to procrastinate.

The thing is, once we have a conscious awareness of our off-task behavior, just as Libet's participants did in his experiments, we can consciously choose to veto our procrastinatory delay. For example, when I realize that I have the urge to click on the link to Facebook or to pick up the television remote, I can veto that action. I can stay focused on the task at hand, even when I have unconscious activation of other, off-task behaviors.

Yes, the situation is much more complex than Libet's experiments. In fact, this is part of the discussion about what we can conclude from Libet's work, and other research like it. Our goal pursuit is not the same as simple flex behaviors in the context of an experiment.

However, the notion of seeing conscious choice work as a veto may be exactly what we need to focus on in order to stop engaging in nonconsciously initiated actions that are undermining our lives. We can veto our habitual actions if we make the intention to. We have free choice to invoke this "free won't!"

Free won't. What won't you choose to do today?

Baumeister, R.F., Mele, A.R., & Vohs, K.D. (2010). Free Will and Consciousness: How Might They Work? New York: Oxford University Press.

Roskies, A.L. (2011). Why Libet's studies don't pose a threat to free will. In W. Sinnott-Armstrong & L. Nadel (Eds.), Conscious Will and Responsibility (pp. 11-22). New York: Oxford University Press.

Sinnott-Armstrong, W., & Nadel, L. (2011). Conscious Will and Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press.

I recommend any of Alfred Mele's books for a very good discussion of issues such as intentions, agency, motivation, self-control and rationality. Professor Mele contributed to the book noted above, and he has written extensively on the implications of Libet's experiments.

A final recommendation is:

Nichols, S. Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism (Note: This is an online course available for purchase. I recommend it highly.)

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