The question of whether or not humans have free will has kept philosophers busy for thousands of years. Determinists, for example, believe that the course of time is autocratically designed by some higher power, making mere mortals impotent to make their own decisions. Others, like Sartre, claim that we are nothing if not free agents, and are in fact defined by our self-determinacy. Not for the first time, neuroscience has weighed in on the matter, with a new study confirming that regardless of man’s authority over his own fate, the brain does at least possess a mechanism for undertaking purely voluntary actions.
Reporting their findings in the journal Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, researchers from Johns Hopkins University describe how they measured the brain activity of volunteers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they watched colored letters scroll across two screens. During the experiment, participants were asked to switch their attention from one screen to the other at moments of their own choosing, while the study authors attempted to identify the areas of the brain responsible for orchestrating this free choice.
Intriguingly, the data revealed that slightly before participants actually switched their focus, a number of regions in the frontal and prefrontal cortex – such as the right middle frontal gyrus (rMFG) and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) – became active. Since these brain areas are associated with reasoning and movement, the researchers believe that they may be responsible for pondering and deliberating over a decision, before any action is taken.
Once this choice has been made, a region called the medial superior parietal lobule (mSPL) suddenly becomes activated and appears to be responsible for actually coordinating action relating to free decision-making – in this case, the refocusing of attention from one screen to another.
Rather than using this information to contribute to the argument over whether or not humans really have free will, the researchers hope to one day find a way to make use of their findings in order to help people control their decision-making – such as those with eating disorders or addictions.