Spontaneous Decisions and Free Will: Empirical Results and Philosophical Considerations

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Spontaneous actions are preceded by brain signals that may sometimes be detected hundreds of milliseconds in advance of a subject's conscious intention to act. These signals have been claimed to reflect prior unconscious decisions, raising doubts about the causal role of conscious will. Murakami et al. (2014. Nat Neurosci 17: 1574–1582) have recently argued for a different interpretation. During a task in which rats spontaneously decided when to abort waiting, the authors recorded neurons in the secondary motor cortex. The neural activity and relationship to action timing was parsimoniously explained using an integration-to-bound model, similar to those widely used to account for evidence-based decisions. In this model, the brain accumulates spontaneously occurring inputs voting for or against an action, but only commits to act once a certain threshold is crossed. The model explains how spontaneous decisions can be forecast (partially predicted) by neurons that reflect either the input or output of the integrator. It therefore presents an explicit hypothesis capable of rejecting the claim that such predictive signals imply unconscious decisions. We suggest that these results can inform the current debate on free will but must be considered with caution.
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