In my post of 7/31/10 I discussed a somewhat widely-publicized study published in 2008 in Nature Neuroscience, in which researchers using brain scanners could predict people's very simple decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of what their decision was. The concern was raised at that time was whether some totalitarian government might start arresting people based on a determination of what they were going to do at some time in the future, like the precrime unit in the movie Minority Report.This study still comes up in philosophical discussions of a different issue - whether people even really have free will at all, or if we are more like pre-programmed robots.The decision studied in the experiment — whether to hit a button with one's left or right hand —may not be representative of complicated choices that are more integrally tied to our sense of self-direction. Regardless, the findings raise interesting questions about the nature of self and autonomy: How free is our will? Is conscious choice just an illusion?"Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done," said study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist who was at the Max Planck Institute. Haynes updated a classic experiment by Benjamin Libet, who showed that a brain region involved in coordinating motor activity fired a fraction of a second before test subjects chose to push a button. Hayne's study showed a much large time gap between a decision and the experience of making it.In the seven seconds before Haynes' test subjects chose to push a button, activity shifted in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of sensory integration. Haynes' team monitored these shifting neural patterns using a functional MRI machine.Taken together, the patterns consistently predicted whether test subjects eventually pushed a button with their left or right hand -- a choice that, to them, felt like the outcome of conscious deliberation. In fact, their decision seems to have been made before they were aware of having made a choice.So does this mean the feeling and belief we have that we have free will is just an illusion?Well possibly, but probably not. For one thing, the experiment may not reflect the mental dynamics of much more complicated and/or emotionally meaningful decisions. Also, the predictions were not 100% accurate. Might free will enter at the last moment, allowing a person to override a subconscious decision?But there is a much bigger problem with drawing conclusions about free will from this type of experiment. We usually do not employ free will in the sense of making conscious choices when we engage in the vast majority of our usual daily activities. If we had to weigh the pro's and con's of our every move as we negotiated our life, or if individuals had to stop and think about how to behave before doing the most routine activities, so much time would be spent on that that they would be nearly paralyzed. Most of our "decisions" are based on environmental cues which are processed subconsicously and which then trigger habitual behavior without requiring any thought on our parts at all. Through our life experiences, we all build mental models of our environment called schemas which then, when cued by environmental triggers, automatically kick in. Cues elicit a certain well-rehearsed repertoire of responses.To understand this, think of your daily drive to work. Most drivers, while negotiating a familiar route, have at one time or another come to the realization that they had not been paying the least attention to what they had been doing for several minutes. Nonetheless, they arrived at their destination, with almost no recollection of any of the landmarks that they had passed.Surely, we have the option to choose to make a turn that would take us away from our intended destination, but, under most circumstances, why would we waste our time even considering something like that?A lot of predictable situations like this are handled on "automatic pilot." Gregory Bateson observed that ordinary situations and "constant truths" are assimilated and stored in deep brain structures, while conscious deliberation is reserved for changeable, novel, and unpredictable situations.This does not mean, however, that rigid behavior cannot be overcome by conscious deliberation. In neurologically intact individuals, the more evolutionarily-advanced part of the human brain, the cerebral cortex, can override even the most reflexive of gross motor behavior.So perhaps the brain processes described in this study are the ones that determine whether or not an individual goes on automatic pilot, or has to stop and think about potential unanticipated consequences. React in the usual habitual way, or re-assess? When it comes to pushing an inert button in a lab, the consequences for the subject are pretty predictable: there will not be any.Unless the subject were purposely trying to foul up the experimenter's protocol, which would be a strange thing to want to do in an experiment with no social consequences to the subject, why would they extend brain energy in making a choice? They would not. They would just "go with their gut."Therefore, from the data in this study alone, it is not possible to know which interpretation is correct: the experimenter's, or the one I just suggested.Maybe you don't have free will, maybe you do. As I said in the earlier post, I am pretty sure I do.