Brain Activity Prior to Conscious Awareness

Brain Activity Prior to Conscious Awareness

A recent study in Nature Neuroscience has sent freewheeling free will discussion aflutter. Here's the abstract:

There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively 'free' decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.

For some discussion, see here (Wired), here (Wired Interview), here (Boston Globe), and here (Health LawProf Blog). Here's a sample from the Wired article:

The decision studied -- whether to hit a button with one's left or right hand -- may not be representative of complicated choices that are more integrally tied to our sense of self-direction. Regardless, the findings raise profound questions about the nature of self and autonomy: How free is our will? Is conscious choice just an illusion?

"Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done," said study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a Max Planck Institute neuroscientist.

Haynes updated a classic experiment by the late Benjamin Libet, who showed that a brain region involved in coordinating motor activity fired a fraction of a second before test subjects chose to push a button. Later studies supported Libet's theory that subconscious activity preceded and determined conscious choice -- but none found such a vast gap between a decision and the experience of making it as Haynes' study has.

In the seven seconds before Haynes' test subjects chose to push a button, activity shifted in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of sensory integration. Haynes' team monitored these shifting neural patterns using a functional MRI machine.

Taken together, the patterns consistently predicted whether test subjects eventually pushed a button with their left or right hand -- a choice that, to them, felt like the outcome of conscious deliberation. For those accustomed to thinking of themselves as having free will, the implications are far more unsettling than learning about the physiological basis of other brain functions.

How does this reflect on the idea that awareness precedes matter? might we infer that the study doesnt demonstrate anything preceding true awareness, but instead highlights a distinction between Awareness and all manifestations including the self and conscious decision?

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Comment by Katinka Hesselink on May 9, 2009 at 4:44am
Science would totally agree with you - or most scientists would. Eastern mysticism would not agree - because if consciousness is totally a by product of what goes on in the brain, then things like reincarnation, karma and all that stuff would automatically be said to be untrue. Which is why, of course, Stephen Bachelors version of Buddhism is popular in certain circles. But then we're stuck with kids who report memories of past lives and all that circumstantial evidence.

For myself - however interesting all this is - as long as science doesn't manage to explain the illusion of consciousness (it insists it's an illusion after all), I can't take their hypothesis as final. I take the evidence as it stands, and my own experiences as well - and the rest is just unanswered questions.

Science plays the eternal sceptic. But when you have, like I have, talked to a plant and seen it bloom in response (long story, but this is the gist), the physical is just not enough to explain everything.

[somewhat off topic]One reason I'm so fascinated with the new evidence that humans respond to magnetic fields and infrasound, is the avenues of thought it opens up for the other direction: what does our magnetic field contain in terms of influence on the world? On plant life for instance? [/off topic]

In other words: in this whole discussion the notion that we WILL something, quite a central part of occultism from the start of Blavatsky's work, becomes moot. And that doesn't quite fit my experience. People have a will - I certainly do - and where does that drive, that direction, come from if all we are is genes trying to replicate?

I don't have all the answers. I love the questions all this opens up, but I don't think scientists have all the answers either.
Comment by Mikhayl Von Riebon on May 8, 2009 at 9:34pm
as an observation i notice most arguments continue to rest on the idea of a 'transcending self' or soul yet there is no real evidence to support such an idea (and in the god, no-god dichotomy there's no real evidence to deny it either). but hypothetically, lets pretend there is no soul or higher self and what we think of as ourselves is nothing more then the result of interdependent parts, how would this relate to both science and eastern mysticism?
Comment by Katinka Hesselink on May 8, 2009 at 2:12pm
Sure, my heart's still beating Christina & I'm glad I don't have to think about that.

Martin: maybe, but being aware of the body does help for those of us that have a tendency to loose touch with it - for instance because of over thinking.

Weird isn't it - that we can over think, even though science insists our bodies are all there is?
Comment by christinaleestemaker on May 8, 2009 at 1:18pm
Ha Katinka, Hope for you it is still knokking!!!
Comment by Katinka Hesselink on May 8, 2009 at 11:42am
Thinking about it - just because there is brain activity, doesn't mean it's not also 'spirit' - It is pretty obvious that the brain is the vehicle for whatever happens to us. I like the radio analogy - just because we can't see the radio waves, doesn't mean they're not there. Similarly - just because we're not conscious of what our unconscious does - doesn't mean it's not also in a sense spirit. We're usually unconscious of atma as well - doesn't mean IT's not there. Just means we're not listening with our conscious mind.

I don't know if I'm making sense - it's just that the conscious-unconscious dichotomy doesn't have to coincide with the spirit-matter dichotomy. After all - as I'm sitting here I'm conscious of my fingers typing, and noting what happens in my body, I sit a bit straighter. I'm also unconscious of a lot that goes on in my body - no idea what my heart is doing, for instance.
Comment by Katinka Hesselink on May 8, 2009 at 11:31am
There's further evidence that if you ask people to change their minds half way through those 10 seconds, they can still do so. So this evidence is not really evidence of what they hope it is evidence of.

But yes, it does challenge the idea that spirit comes first. Of course scientists have been insisting that for over a century anyhow - that mind is a byproduct of complex processes in the brain. Thankfully there is also a lot of evidence that we can actually control our brain, by training, meditation and what we do. Which brings common sense back into it, as far as I'm concerned. I discussed Susan Blackmore on consciousness here:

I went into it from a theosophical point of view here and here.

Does spirit really ALWAS come first - or does it just come first at first... In other words, I know that in learning there's a conscious process that starts it all. A kid trying really hard to learn their letters for instance. Then the go to bed, and the next day they will be better at the letters than they were when they finished the day before, because the brain goes on processing what it learned. this is true for artists, scientists, learning a language, learning math - etc. Anything complex is better learned when rest is taken in between. But while the brain processing things is important, what comes first is the teacher giving the kid an assignment - or in the case of smart five year olds, of them looking out curiously at their parents reading a newspaper (or a computerscreen). So perhaps this is as illusive as the chicken and the egg.

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