Noisy decisions

Topographic map of alpha wave power in the left hemisphere of the brain in the period starting 800 milliseconds before a decision significantly influences the decision. Credit: Jesse J. Bengson et al./Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

A philosophical issue that kept fascinating me is the one of free will. Philosophers have taken different standpoints on this, and religions are as well taking different standpoints. 

Some studies on quantum effects, and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, have been called into sustaining the physical underpinning for free will. But so far speculations can continue since there is no clear understanding on the process involved in decisions taking place in our brain.

As new ways of looking inside a working brain are becoming available we are approaching a point where a scientific answer to "free will" might become possible.

Researchers at the University of California have published the results of an experiment that shows how decisions our brain takes are strongly influenced by random noise" that is present in the second before the brain is asked to take a decision (800 ms in fact).

Our brain is always swamped by electrical activity. Stimuli coming from our senses create specific electrical currents within the brain that are the result of, and result in, triggering of neurones. Since a neurone triggering depends on various parameters (like the intensity of activating signals, the one of deactivating signals, the time since the last activation, the neuromodulator presence around the neurone...) the actual firing is not always a sure thing and the experiment has proved that the electrical noise existing a few moments before a stimulus requiring a decision condition the outcome of the decision.

This experiment follows one made by Libet in the 1970's that measured electrical activity but with much less resolution than what it is possibile today.

According to one of the experimenters, Jesse Bengson,

“It inserts a random effect that allows us to be freed from simple cause and effect” .

A new twist on our quest to understand free will ....

Author - Roberto Saracco

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