Free will may be an illusion, study says

The idea that we make autonomous choices may be nothing more than "background noise" in our brain, according to researchers at UC Davis.

Chris Matyszczyk
4 min read

Are you free? Are you willing? UC Davis/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Nobody made me write this. Except for my own self-delusion.

I had always thought that I was a reasonably free-thinking individual, faults and all. However, I can see now that my behavior is nothing more than the result of electric interference.

Please forgive this rampant confession, but my mind has just been twisted by another piece of research from a fine educational establishment.

I had always thought that the University of California, Davis, was merely full of aspiring winemakers. However, Live Science informs me that it has a Center for Mind and Brain.

Its researchers have just released a mind-altering piece of research titled "Spontaneous Neural Fluctuations Predict Decisions to Attend." It suggests we may have no free will. Because there isn't any.

Instead, they posit that the notion of free will -- the feeling that you're doing something just because you want to -- is merely the result of electric activity in the brain.

The question is, what kind of electrical activity is it? Rick Addante, a neurologist at the University of Texas in Austin, told Live Science that the electrical activity might not be "all noise." He said: "The question then becomes, what is it, and what is the information that it contains."

You might be wondering whether these UC Davis researchers reached their conclusion freely. Well, they hooked up some human guinea pigs to electroencephalography (EEG) machines in order to measure their "brain noise."

I don't know about you, but mine sometimes resembles a symphony orchestra fighting over Guns N' Roses in their heyday.

Still, these guinea pigs were told to stare at a screen and then, given a cue on that screen, to choose to look left or right. Simple enough.

What the guinea pigs didn't know was that the researchers were examining whether there was any link between the brain patterns before decision-making and the actual decision made.

The researchers concluded that the decision-making was linked to the brain's electrical activity, an activity they describe as "random."

Study co-author Jesse Bengson explained it to me like this: "We are at a point now in the progression of our understanding of the brain,where it is safe to say that there is something we call 'noise' in the brain. This 'noise' is simply the fact that the brain appears to carry an ongoing time-varying signal that is not part of a traditional stimulus-response or simple linear cause and effect models of neural transmission."

So the brain is doing its own thing?

Is anything, though, ultimately arbitrary? Or is there a distinct pattern to this apparent randomness that simple hasn't been discerned yet? Might scientists have simply not deciphered the language inherent in it?

Bengson told me: "Recent neuroscience work is beginning to suggest that this 'noise' might even serve a purpose. There are studies which have shown that the ability to perceive a hard-to-see visual stimulus depends in part on the level of noise in the visual system: too much or too little noise and the visual system does not function at it's best. The noise level has to be just right for proper function."

Bengson isn't trying to deny that our behavior is largely driven by rational cause and effect.

However, he said: "If this cause and effect stimulus response sequence is influenced by an arbitrary time varying spontaneous signal in the brain within a given moment, then we can see why our behavior has the flavor of free will."

But that's the whole problem with humanity, isn't it? So much of it seems at times arbitrary.

As Bengson put it: "We make arbitrary spur of the moment decisions, we make mistakes and our behavior does not appear perfectly predictable."

We ascribe meaning to certain things and absolve others of any meaning at all. It doesn't mean we're right. It merely means we're trying to organize, label, and understand what we fear may make no sense at all.

And if there's one thing that rarely makes any sense, it's the way we make decisions.

Far too many times, we sit late at night, or very early in the morning, wondering: "Why did I do that?"

Bengson tried to put some numbers to his team's findings. He told me: "Our data suggest that there is a statistically significant effect of noise on decision making that accounts for about 40 percent of the variance across participants within our particular task. How much of our behavior in everyday life is driven by noise relative to rational thought? There is still a lot of science to be done on that question."

I asked him whether he could foresee the day when an accused criminal or a philandering husband offered this defense: "The Noise made me do it."

He replied: "That question is better left for a philosopher or lawyer. It is very far beyond our contemporary understanding of the mind-brain relationship, and very far beyond my expertise."