A Simple Computer Test Shows The Limitations Of Our Free Will

A Simple Computer Test Shows the Limitations of Our Free Will

The question of whether or not human beings possess free will is a source of much contention, particularly between neuroscientists and philosophers. A new study pitted humans against a computer to test whether our conscious decisions are actually determined by unconscious processes. Perhaps, the premise suggests, we only think we have free will when making a choice. Researchers at the Charité's Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience targeted an established brain activity pattern known as "readiness potential". This pattern precedes every decision you make. Only after you've got the pattern do you make the choice.

To double check this finding, the researchers pitted volunteers against a computer designed to check whether people went on auto-pilot after readiness potential kicked in, and published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The volunteers were told that they were going to play a game with the computer. During the game, they would make decisions about when to push a button. The computer would try to predict when they were going to push the button and then put out a stop signal. If the volunteer pushed anyway, they'd lose points. If they successfully pressed the button without being predicted, and they'd gain points.

But the game was sort of rigged. While playing, the subjects wore an EEG (electroencephalogram) cap that was designed to give the computer an advantage. The researchers had programmed the computer to recognise the readiness potential, which only arises in the last second before the decision. The computer sensed this pattern just before a person moved, so it could beat the human subject to the punch. If people were on autopilot, only thinking that they made a conscious decision, they wouldn't be able to "veto" their pre-determined choice to move, and the computer would win every time.

The computer did not win every time. People do have conscious control of their actions after their state of readiness potential has kicked in -- but only up to a point. If people saw the stop signal less than 200 milliseconds before their "movement onset", they would lose to the computer.

Still, if you believe the scientists' estimation of free will, this shows that the state of "readiness potential" doesn't govern our brain. We can consciously snap out of decisions that it unconsciously prepares us to make. What do you think? Is this computer testing for free will? Or just reflexes? Or something else entirely?


Image via Warner Brothers

WATCH MORE: Science & Health News


    We obviously don't have free well, it's not even a coherent idea.

    This study wasnt about free will (numerous studies have shown they can measure'your decision' before you are conscious of it). Instead it was simply about which signals that we measure can be overrided by other input, and how long until the point of no return.

    Of course these are high level measurements that don't even scratch the surface of what is happening at the neuron level.

    Free will doesn't seem like a physiological thing you can measure or observe, it's more of a philosophical construct.

    Or just reflexes?

    How is this anything to do with reflexes?

    Definition of reflex - an involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus.

    There is nothing involuntary nor any stimulus in this experiment.

    The stop sign the computer flashes is the stimulus, and trying to overcome the brief involuntary movement (reflex) if the stop sign is displayed is how it relates.


      This experiment is fundamentally flawed.

      The researchers have invalidated their experiment by corrupting it with the irrelevant aspect of speed of people's reflexes. I don't believe they have proven anything of note.

      That's not measuring reflex. That's measuring reaction.

    I tried not to push the SUBMIT button on this comment, but I didnt have the will to stop myself.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now