Ben Libet
October 26, 2007 1:56 PM   Subscribe

Recently passed Benjamin Libet conducted some famous experiments that had incredible implications on how we think about free will and consciousness. The results of these experiments are open to interpretation.
posted by shotgunbooty (28 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I didn't want to comment on this post, but I had no choice.
posted by yhbc at 2:04 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by shotgunbooty at 2:10 PM on October 26, 2007

(what does "open to interpretation" mean? are there ever results that do not require or are closed to interpretation?)

my intuitive bias is that we are more likely to find the missing bits (those not explained by neuronal activities) in embodiment and being embedded in an environment, rather than "fields". but for sure, libet was a real pioneer in bringing together the experimental and theoretical sides of the question!

Recommended reading: Andy Clark (1997) Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again
posted by mano at 2:13 PM on October 26, 2007

I don't get the interpretation of these experiments as precluding free will-- it could just as easily mean that the articulation of the intent that the brain activity represents occurs a bit after the intention is formed.

So by the time you are able to physically illustrate that you are making the decision, you've already made it, but that doesn't mean you aren't choosing.
posted by Maias at 2:19 PM on October 26, 2007

I find the argument that Morality depends on Free Will to be quite silly. Free will is a philosophical artifact of reconciling god and the existence of bad things.
posted by delmoi at 2:25 PM on October 26, 2007

Great post.
posted by Phanx at 2:29 PM on October 26, 2007

I took karate for a few years, and I saw some of this myself. Conscious thought is slow, terribly slow. I think of martial arts as programming intelligence into the hands and feet.

Your non-conscious mind is enormously powerful. It's incredibly fast and intelligent, it just needs to be taught what to do. The conscious mind is weak and slow in comparison, but it can plan more than a few seconds into the future, which the fast-reflex circuitry doesn't seem to be able to do. It doesn't model abstractly, but it understands immediate cause-and-effect very well indeed.

Keep in mind that I was never all that good, a solid intermediate at best... but what I found was that I would set up a loose set of strategies for a particular opponent, sort of a very vague suggestion of things that might work... and that the hands and feet could take it from there. I frequently found myself surprised at just how inventive and, well, smart they were, given some training.

The best example I have is when I was pretend-jumped once by a co-worker. I have no memory of what specifically happened, but apparently as he tried to grab me, one arm blocked and swiped him off to one side, bending him over, while the left hand got ready to strike. From a conscious perspective, it was instant: he was standing there, and then he was bent over the desk and I was ready to hit him, with no intervening time whatsoever. (I'm only inferring what must have happened from where he and I ended up.) I'm not sure who was more shocked. I didn't say anything, but that wasn't being cool, that was being entirely confused. My internal narrative had been broken. With what I've learned in later life, I assume I had no way to retroactively construct a story of why I did that, and thus simply lost that half-second from my consciousness altogether.

I also find it interesting that the situation was handled extremely thoroughly, and correctly; I believe my reflex mind understood that the threat wasn't real, so I didn't actually hit him. It set things up, and then deferred to the oh-so-slow "me" to decide what to do next.

Probably, most people reading this are very conscious-mind folks; it's the nature of the medium. There's a lot more going on in our heads than we commonly realize.

There's more to you than you think, and I mean that absolutely literally.
posted by Malor at 2:54 PM on October 26, 2007 [9 favorites]

“Free will is a philosophical artifact of reconciling god and the existence of bad things.”

That's entirely untrue. Your statement makes it seem as if the only thing you've read on this subject is Genesis. “Free will” is our belief that we make choices about anything, including what to eat, when to touch our nose, whatever.

And morality, in the sense that we believe we are moral agents, obviously requires free will.

Anyway, Libet's hypothesis seems right to me. I don't believe that free will actually exists in the sense that we think it exists, in reductionist terms. I do think it exists—in fact, I think it necessarily exists—merely because we experience it.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:54 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Magnificent post, thank you!
posted by Skorgu at 3:12 PM on October 26, 2007

> I find the argument that Morality depends on Free Will to be quite silly. Free will is a philosophical artifact
> of reconciling god and the existence of bad things.

There's a bit more to it than that. If you throw out the notion of freedom of choice you also have to throw out the correlated notions of right and wrong and of guilt and innocence. Example: in cases where freedom of choice is clearly absent, that's seen as exculpatory: "Sure I drove the getaway car, judge, but I had no choice, they were holding a gun to my head." That hasn't got much to do with why-does-god-permit-evil theology but still it's an area where the idea of free choice is critical or the whole game collapses. Very damn few, especially around here, are going to want to give up the blame game. But if there's no freedom of choice, out it goes.

> I don't get the interpretation of these experiments as precluding free will

I agree. What they do is help to further discredit the idea that the intention I am aware of is the choice, but that idea has already taken some heavy hits. In fact the notion that there must be some entity "I" somewhere inside to do the choosing is pretty much of a chestnut, and Je pense, donc je suis was not one of Descarte's better ideas. That the "I" is just a linguistic/cultural convention and not a real entity has been asserted by everybody from radical behaviorists like B. F. Skinner to meditation masters like Bassui Zenji (1327-1387), who advised those who really want to experience the unreality of "I" to continually ask "Where is the master who moves the hands?" "Who is the master who hears the sounds?" Idea being that these are answerless koans like "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" or "can snakes sit?" and that no matter how long and hard we search inwardly we aren't going to find any subject--the person--that causes the actions or makes the choices or receives the sensations. And yet sensations are felt and choices happen, so hanging the notion of free will on the further notion of some equally free je suis self (or on a subcategory of notions about the self, such as conscious je pense intentions) must be thinking about it wrong.
posted by jfuller at 3:41 PM on October 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

I don't know that this is directly related but it sort of reminds me of a fascinating experiment I once read about by Holger Klintman, a psychologist from Lund University. I can't find any English links to it but the basic idea was that you show the subject a color patch-red, green, yellow or blue- and then show them a card that with the text of a color name-"red", "green", "yellow" or "blue." So the test went like this:

1. Show the color patch
2. Have the subject say out loud the color they see as quickly as possible.
3. Show the subject a card with a color name and have them read it aloud.

When the subjects see, for example, a red color patch they say "red" and if the text card shown to them reads "red" they say "red" again. However, the card might not match and they might be required to read "green" instead.

What he found is that when everything matches people can do the task extremely quickly. Show a red patch, say "red", read "red" and most people are very quick. Screw with them a bit and it becomes very difficult. Show a red patch, say "red" and then read "green" and confusion ensues.

At first he was just measuring the reaction times for matched and mismatched sets for the time between speaking the color and then reading the color name. As you would expect the matched color/color name times were much shorter than the mismatched color/color name times. But then he started measuring the times between showing the color patch and speaking the color name before the subject was shown the color name card.

What he found was that the times for speaking the seen color were shorter when the color name card, which the subject had not yet seen, matched the seen color patch than when they did not match.

Klintman referred to this effect as "time-reversed interference." I'd be interested in knowing if there are any serious published critiques of this experiment. It seems like it would be a pretty easy experiment to replicate.
posted by well_balanced at 3:42 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

lots of stuff goes into reaction time.

i think this is simply "cueing". basically, the red color cues you to look for the word red. the color card has information on it, and even if the color isnt technically an informative cue, you cant ignore it.
posted by mano at 4:10 PM on October 26, 2007

Second Person, Present Tense
posted by Jakey at 4:49 PM on October 26, 2007

Sorry, well_balanced, it reads to me that you're saying the word on the name card influenced how quickly the viewer spoke the colour of the patch card... even though they didn't know what the word was going to be.

That sounds suspect.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:16 PM on October 26, 2007

A better example of how our memory is suspect is the colored dots experiment Dennet talks about in Consciousness Explained. (Well, I assume he talks about it because he talked about it in a small lecture he gave that I attended shortly after the book was published.)

There's a processing difference in how our vision processes motion and color. You can set up an experiment that targets this difference such that one is changed before the other but what people experience when they see it is the reverse order. Or something similar—it's been many years since that lecture.

That happens during processing in the visual cortex. In memory research proper, there's a bunch of other examples of how what goes into each of the three levels of memory is synthetic.

Dennet's argument in that book is that consciousness is a product of memory. Memory both smooths everything out and presents a sort of fiction of continuous aware experience, while, in the other direction, memory creates the context in which consciousness is useful. Think about what it means to experience a memory of an experience. How come the memory isn't a repeat of the experience? How come it almost is?

“Sorry, well_balanced, it reads to me that you're saying the word on the name card influenced how quickly the viewer spoke the colour of the patch card... even though they didn't know what the word was going to be.”

Yeah, I think he's misunderstanding the research. It's not how I've heard this experiment described. I've just heard that the mismatch frustrates identification, but not retroactively—that's impossible.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:12 PM on October 26, 2007

One thing, perhaps, we can agree on-

"Your brain is not the boss!"
posted by pointilist at 7:41 PM on October 26, 2007

well_balanced, I'm with fff. The "time-reversed interference" effect sounds like an artifact of a poorly designed experiment to me. It does remind me of the Stroop effect, though, in which the names of colors are presented in colored ink and the subject is asked to either read the color name or identify the ink color. When name and color match, reaction times are faster than when the name and color are different. No huge surprise, really, but it makes for a good experimental tool. It's pretty interesting to see what happens when you pit the conscious against the automatic. I got to do quite a bit of work along these lines with Larry Jacoby during my short flirtation with graduate studies in cognitive psychology.
posted by pgautier at 8:16 PM on October 26, 2007

Eh, to be specific, fff isn't saying well_balanced is lying or stupid: I'm saying I'm misunderstanding what he is trying to say, and I would like him to clarify. Either I need to learn to read or I need him to reword or rearrange the words in a for-dummies style.

The experiment sounds very interesting and I'm trying to grok what they were measuring and how they 'constructed' the test.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:25 PM on October 26, 2007

Yeah, I think he's misunderstanding the research.

No, I have the details more or less correct. The reaction time appeared to be altered based on what the word was going to be before it was known. It was a double-blind experiment that was redesigned five times to try to eliminate the effect. Finally calculated as odds against chance of 500K to 1. It is held up as an example in 'psi' research although Klintman was not a psi researcher and just stumbled across this. What it means exactly I'm not entirely sure and the extent to which it has been replicated or critiqued I'm not sure either. In any case it seemed sort of relevant as the whole consciousness as a field thing pops up in psi literature now and then. I'm sure the word 'psi' will immediately cause some here great anxiety but take a look at the linked pdf.

English links are hard to come by but he published a book. Here is a fairly extensive document [pdf] regarding at least one set of replications and describes the experiment in detail. You could probably contact him as well.
posted by well_balanced at 8:38 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow, fff, I didn't think your comment implied that well_balanced was "lying or stupid" in the least (on the off chance that my comment inspired your caveat).

I did find a reference to some work by Klintman in the context of parapsychological/psychic research (5th paragraph). I remain skeptical.
posted by pgautier at 8:50 PM on October 26, 2007

Oh, cool-- thanks for digging up that pdf, well_balanced.
posted by pgautier at 8:57 PM on October 26, 2007

I find Libet's research to be pretty interesting but hardly conclusive of anything. My thoughts on him are in the thread linked to by shotgunbooty, but those who are interested in the larger discussion of free will, should check out Gyan's astute comments. They start at the link and there are several more from there to the end of the thread.
posted by BigSky at 9:18 PM on October 26, 2007

I was afraid my comment had, pgautier. I didn't want to be misunderstood.

I'm finding well_balanced's idea less likely now. It is exceedingly likely the test is flawed.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:51 PM on October 26, 2007

It's a little overhasty to infer from Libet's experiments to a lack of free will. The phenomena he investigates have little to do with free will. One of his famous experiments is something like this: subjects are told to twitch their finger at some arbitrary point in time and then report on when they felt the 'urge' to twitch their finger. It was emphasized to the subjects that they should twitch their finger entirely at random, and let themselves be surprised by the movement. And then it turned out that some sort of 'readiness potential' gathered in the brain before they 'noticed' their own 'intention', 30 ms earlier or something. Libet concluded from this that the brain forms the intention before the person consciously does.

But it's pretty clear that he described the intention wrong. Really the subjects' intention was not to twitch their finger at point x or point y in time; their intention was to do as instructed, namely: to have their finger twitch randomly and spontaneously at some unplanned point in time, which turned out to be point x or point y. And Libet's measurements showing a 'readiness potential' in the brain before they are aware of twitching their finger at point x in time shows that they succeeded in their intention of having their finger twitch spontaneously and unplanned.

So it's not a lack of free will when someone tries to have their finger twitch randomly and it turns out to be random. Free will comes into play when the subjects decide to answer the ad in the paper, decide to show up at Libet's office, decide to take part in this experiment, decide to have their finger twitch randomly at some unplanned point, etc. And when Libet decides to run the experiment, decides to publish the results, etc. And if Libet could show that he his brain 'decided' to make the experiment before he consciously decided to make the experiment, that would be impressive.

Delmoi, the reason people believe in free will is because if I do something stupid and people hold me accountable for it, they can only hold me accountable if I could have done otherwise. If everything is pre-determined; if my hands are tied and I can't change the course of action: then I'm not really to blame for it at all, now am I? At least this is the question that gets raised in free will debates.
posted by creasy boy at 12:52 AM on October 27, 2007

What's interesting to me about free will is that it clearly is to some extent learned. I always think about this in regard to babies-- newborns seem very alien because they don't seem to have any will, crying seems to "happen" to them as a result of negative sensations.

But very soon, you can see them decide whether or not to cry... and somewhere in there, they have developed some self-control. You can probably track this with brain scans, it's probably do with the development of the brain regions that allow modulation of the bits in between the sensory and motor systems... just like you could probably track the development of neurons that allow bowel and bladder control.

Also, when you make dumb decisions a few times and see the results, most people seem to be able to learn not to do that again-- one of the reasons i think that people do to some extent get wiser as they get older is that this kind of learning allows one to envision the possible outcomes from choices more completely and therefore to choose from a broader range of actions, reducing your chances of making bad decisions because you feel like "there's no other choice."

This could also explain why research connects intelligence with better outcomes amongst abused children-- the smarter kids can see more choices and so they don't feel limited to either lashing out themselves or withdrawing.
posted by Maias at 3:12 PM on October 27, 2007

“Delmoi, the reason people believe in free will is because if I do something stupid and people hold me accountable for it, they can only hold me accountable if I could have done otherwise.”

No, the reason that people believe in free will is because they know that they decided to have cereal for breakfast instead of eggs and bacon. People believe in free will because it's the fundamental experience of self.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:26 PM on October 27, 2007

Maias, that's an interesting point, for me it gets right to the nerve of the problem. As EB says, we can't really imagine being a thinking self without free will. But then if we assume free will it's hard to explain how this free will is supposed to arise from the natural, material world (assuming we don't want to turn to theological explanations at this point). If a newborn does not yet have free will, but later does, how does this occur? Is the change caused? And if our species at some point did not have free will, how did we evolve it? Did natural selection at some point favor freedom of will?
posted by creasy boy at 1:22 AM on October 28, 2007

Consciousness may be like an electron: when it comes down to measuring it, you can never know both its location and momentum. A probability field.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:10 AM on October 28, 2007

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