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Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain

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Abstract

There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively 'free' decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness. This delay presumably reflects the operation of a network of high-level control areas that begin to prepare an upcoming decision long before it enters awareness.
... Greater activation in the pre-SMA (Deiber et al., 1999) and the DLPFC (Jahanshahi et al., 1995) was found in free timing arrangements. These studies served as a basis for more recent ones where it was possible to predict which future movement would be made based on the preparatory activity of the pre-SMA and frontal cortex even ten seconds before the willing to move enters awareness (Soon et al., 2008). As the brain is along its way to perform an action, it also makes a decision of whether to do it or not. ...
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The problem of whether we can execute free acts or not is central in philosophical thought, and it has been studied by numerous scholars throughout the centuries. Recently, neurosciences have entered this topic contributing new data and insights into the neuroanatomical basis of cognitive processes. With the advent of connectomics, a more refined landscape of brain connectivity can be analysed at an unprecedented level of detail. Here, we identify the connectivity network involved in the movement process from a connectomics point of view, from its motivation through its execution until the sense of agency develops. We constructed a “volitional network” using data derived from the Brainnetome Atlas database considering areas involved in volitional processes as known in the literature. We divided this process into eight processes and used Graph Theory to measure several structural properties of the network. Our results show that the volitional network is small-world and that it contains four communities. Nodes of the right hemisphere are contained in three of these communities whereas nodes of the left hemisphere only in two. Centrality measures indicate the nucleus accumbens is one of the most connected nodes in the network. Extensive connectivity is observed in all processes except in Decision (to move) and modulation of Agency, which might correlate with a mismatch mechanism for perception of Agency.
... Anticipatory unconscious processing before conscious processing in decision-making has been reported [27,28]. Particularly, neuroimaging study demonstrated a decision could be encoded in the brain activity of the prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness [29]. It is not unreasonable to conclude that anticipatory unconscious processing has to do with subsequent decision-making. ...
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... The Libet experiment has given rise to much debate (e.g., [25][26][27]), and in the end may turn out to be largely irrelevant to the problem of free will. At least if we are persuaded by a re-conceptualization of Libet's research and the related empirical data by researchers who have found a clever way of interpreting the so-called Bereitschaftspotential as an artefact [28,29]. ...
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The conclusions drawn by Benjamin Libet from his work with colleagues on the timing of somatosensorial conscious experiences has met with a lot of praise and criticism. In this issue we find three examples of the latter. Here I attempt to place the divide between the two opponent camps in a broader perspective by analyzing the question of the relation between physical timing, neural timing, and experiential (mental) timing. The nervous system does a sophisticated job of recombining and recoding messages from the sensorial surfaces and if these processes are slighted in a theory, it might become necessary to postulate weird operations, including subjective back-referral. Neuroscientifically inspired theories are of necessity still based on guesses, extrapolations, and philosophically dubious manners of speech. They often assume some neural correlate of consciousness (NCC) as a part of the nervous system that transforms neural activity in reportable experiences. The majority of neuroscientists appear to assume that the NCC can compare and bind activity patterns only if they arrive simultaneously at the NCC. This leads to a search for synchrony or to theories in terms of the compensation of differences in neural delays (latencies). This is the main dimension of the Libet discussion. Examples from vision research, such as "temporal-binding-by-synchrony" and the "flash-lag" effect, are then used to illustrate these reasoning patterns in more detail. Alternatively one could assume symbolic representations of time and space (symbolic "tags") that are not coded in their own dimension (not time in time and space in space). Unless such tags are multiplexed with the quality message (tickle, color, or motion), one gets a binding problem for tags. One of the hidden aspects of the discussion between Libet and opponents appears to be the following. Is the NCC smarter than the rest of the nervous system, so that it can solve the problems of local sign (e.g., "where is the event"?) and timing (e.g., "when did it occur?" and "how long did it last?") on its own, or are these pieces of information coded symbolically early on in the system? A supersmart NCC appears to be the assumption of Libet's camp (which includes Descartes, but also mystics). The wish to distribute the smartness evenly across all stages of processing in the nervous system (smart recodings) appears to motivate the opponents. I argue that there are reasons to side with the latter group.
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Trevena and Miller (2002, this issue) provide further evidence that readiness potentials occur in the brain prior to the time that participants claim to have initiated a voluntary movement, a contention originally forwarded by Libet, Gleason, Wright, and Pearl (1983). In their examination of this issue, though, aspects of their data lead them to question whether their measurement of the initiation of a voluntary movement was accurate. The current article addresses this concern by providing a direct analysis of biases in this task. This was done by asking participants to make subjective timing decisions regarding a stimulus that could be measured objectively. Our findings suggest that their timing task was indeed biased such that participants' tend to report events as happening approximately 70 ms later than they actually happened. Implications for the original Libet et al. claims are discussed.