The experiment helped to change John-Dylan Haynes's outlook on life. In 2007, Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, put people into a brain scanner in which a display screen flashed a succession of random letters1. He told them to press a button with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt the urge, and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they made the decision. The experiment used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity in real time as the volunteers chose to use their right or left hands. The results were quite a surprise.
"The first thought we had was 'we have to check if this is real'," says Haynes. "We came up with more sanity checks than I've ever seen in any other study before."
That is the intro. The next bit gets into realms of philosophy whence angels might fear to tread...
The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.
As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will. Philosophers have debated that concept for centuries, and now Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person's actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. "We feel we choose, but we don't," says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London.
Now I think that is quite an interesting idea.
If only because I can just hear les religeaux piping God hot and strong into the mix.
The practical effects of demolishing free will are hard to predict. Biological determinism doesn't hold up as a defence in law. Legal scholars aren't ready to ditch the principle of personal responsibility. "The law has to be based on the idea that people are responsible for their actions, except in exceptional circumstances," says Nicholas Mackintosh, director of a project on neuroscience and the law run by the Royal Society in London.
Owen Jones, a law professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who directs a similar project funded by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, suggests that the research could help to identify an individual's level of responsibility. "What we are interested in is how neuroscience can give us a more granulated view of how people vary in their ability to control their behaviour," says Jones. That could affect the severity of a sentence, for example.
(Just wait for Weatherstone to get hold of that idea!).
Sorry lads and lasses. I think it is no more than a measure of how thick the human brain is... the unconcious says "press", and it takes the concious 7 seconds (or 0.7 seconds depending on measure and a lot of other variables) to decipher the message. The concious says "I am going to press in five, four, three..." and the "press" neurones fire up, "two, one, fire!".
Very similar to a launch as Cape Canaveral.