Studies Map Free Will: Are We Really in Control of Our Actions?


    Have you ever wondered why you are interested in something, gaming lets say? Is it because games are fun? If so, why do you specifically enjoy gaming? Was it because of your personality? Or perhaps your friends and family (environment) suggested the same to you? Why do we do certain things and not others? Where do our desires come from? Are our decisions independent or are we merely playing our destiny? Does FREE WILL exist?  

    A Scientific Investigation of Free Will

    A study was published in the journal Scientific Reports in which the brain activity of 14 individuals was observed using an fMRI machine. Every individual was shown two patterns. The participants were given 20 seconds to choose a pattern. They pressed a switch after making their decision. They were also asked to visualize the pattern as hard as they could.  

    Interestingly, the fMRI machine was able to predict which pattern was selected up to 11 seconds before the decision was made. It also predicted how vividly the participants had visualized their pattern of choice. Several more studies, from as far back as the 1980s have proven that we are able to predict what decision someone will take much before they have “consciously” decided to make that decision. 


    A Simple Experiment

    The next time you think about something – pause. Ask yourself the following questions:  

    1. Why did I think of this? 
    2. Did I decide beforehand to think of this specific topic? 

    If you believe you can control all your thoughts and choices – try not thinking about anything for the next few minutes. Can you do that? In most cases, it will be extremely difficult for the untrained mind. If we cannot even control our own thoughts, how can we be sure that our decisions, inclinations and thoughts are a result of our own free will? This sheds light on the quote below- 


    The Enormous Implications 

    If free will is an illusion, it has implications for everything – ethics, politics, the criminal justice system, religion, success and relationships among many others.

    It is perhaps the most vivid in the criminal justice system. Say, two people committed the same type of murder. Person A is a rich, middle-aged man with no illness. Person B is a poor young man suffering from a mental illness. We will obviously sympathize with Person B – blaming his biology and environment. However, without a free will – we are nothing more than a product of our biology, past experiences and environment. Hence, Person A is no more a criminal than Person B. 

    Criminal Justice System

    Successful people often atrribute their success to hard work, but if the capacity to work hard or why we work hard is not something in our conscious control – the role of luck becomes decisive.

    The Future  

    More and more diseases are coming under the scrutiny of science. Diseases like epilepsy and schizophrenia, which people of the past believed to be the work of demons, can now be explained through neuroscience. 

    As science advances, we will have a deeper insight into human behaviour. Even predicting actions well before the incident is a possibility. This could lead to pre-crime detection. The entire judicial system might need restructuring. These are, but a few of the many possible consequences. 


    For now, what can we do? 

    Neuroscience is still in its nascent stage. Predicting human behaviour outside the laboratory is far from reality. Studies have shown that people become fatalistic and are more likely to cheat when they are told they don’t have free will. For everyday life, it’s probably better to live under the assumption of having free will. Having said that – we should practice humility in light of our success and exercise compassion for the unfortunate.

    Further Reading:


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