ByPeter M. Vishton, Ph.D.,William & MaryEdited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses DailyActivity increases in the brains left or right motor cortex just before muscle movement begins in the body and before a person is aware of a decision to move. Photo by Liderina / ShutterstockFree Will and Movement: The Surprising Connection
When it comes to the connection between free will and movement, you would think that your physical actions are always preceded by a conscious decision. But did you know that we can tell how people are going to move before they do so?
Indeed, its possible to know how theyre going to move even a few hundred milliseconds in advance. If you think about moving your left hand, even if you dont actually move it, your right motor cortex activates a bit.
Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have suggested that, for some decisions, the lag time can be several seconds. In this type of study, you lay in the fMRI scanner and look at pictures of faces, pondering whether each face looks trustworthy or not.
As youre pondering, activity begins increasing in either your left or right motor cortex, the one that will cause the right or left hand to press the button. At some point, this activity becomes great enough that it causes a movement of your hand.
But well before your hand movesin fact, several seconds before youre even aware that youve made the decisionthe person running the fMRI scanner can accurately predict the choice that youll make.
Some recent studies by neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leone have taken this investigation into movement and free will much further. He used a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).
TMS sends a jolt of electromagnetic energy through the skull to the cortex and causes a burst of activity. If that burst is sent to the correct spot in the motor cortex, for instance, its possible to make your arm twitch.
If I stimulate a spot in the right motor cortex, the left hand twitches, Dr. Vishton said. For a corresponding jolt in the left motor cortex, the right hand will twitch. Our sensory and motor systems all have this crossover or contralateral organization.
Pascual-Leone asked his participants to watch a screen, and when they received a cue, to decide whether they would twitch their left or right hand. They werent supposed to move right away, just decide how they would move a few seconds later.
After a delay of a few seconds, a second cue was delivered, at which point the participant made the movement they had decided to make.
For many of the trials, Pascual-Leone didnt do anything but record these activations. Participants would get the first cue, and they would decide to move one hand or the other. Then the second cue would occur, and the participant would move.
In some trials of this experiment, Pascual-Leone would deliver a TMS jolt to the motor cortex that the participant had chosen to move. The participant would move but rarely notice that they had.
The experimenters were causing the hand movement by stimulating the motor cortex, but the participants were about to do that same thing themselves anyway.
For a few key trials in this experiment, however, when the signal to move was given, Pascual-Leone would deliver a jolt to the motor cortex that the participant had not selected. This caused the wrong hand to move.
Now, if our conscious experience of decisions is in control, this should feel strangereally strange. Youve decided to do one thing, but your body has been hijacked and made to do something else.
The strangest thing about the results of this study is that the participants didnt even seem to notice that their brains had been hijacked.
Most participants had a very simple description of the experience. When asked why they moved their left hand, when their brain activity made it seem like they were going to move their right hand, most participants gave a nonchalant answer: I just changed my mind.
In this experimental situation, its clear that the experimenternot the participants free willis in control of the movement. The surprising result here is that participants dont feel strange when they dont have conscious control of their own movements.
These experimenters argue that this is because we arent typically in control of those movements, even when we arent hooked up to a TMS stimulator in this type of experiment. The results of these studies by Pascual-Leone and others suggest that it doesnt feel unusualindeed, that it isnt unusualfor our conscious mind to not be in control of our actions.
Think about this the next time you reach for a bag of chips or a pint of ice cream.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.
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