TIME Science

Can Neuroscience Debunk Free Will?

David Disalvo is the author of Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life.

Some research shows that brain activity behind a decision occurs before a person consciously apprehends the decision

One of the lively debates spawned from the neuroscience revolution has to do with whether humans possess free will, or merely feel as if we do. If we truly possess free will, then we each consciously control our decisions and actions. If we feel as if we possess free will, then our sense of control is a useful illusion—one that neuroscience will increasingly dispel as it gets better at predicting how brain processes yield decisions.

For those in the free-will-as-illusion camp, the subjective experience of decision ownership is not unimportant, but it is predicated on neural dynamics that are scientifically knowable, traceable and—in time—predictable. One piece of evidence supporting this position has come from neuroscience research showing that brain activity underlying a given decision occurs before a person consciously apprehends the decision. In other words, thought patterns leading to conscious awareness of what we’re going to do are already in motion before we know we’ll do it. Without conscious knowledge of why we’re choosing as we’re choosing, the argument follows, we cannot claim to be exercising “free” will.

Those supporting a purer view of free will argue that whether or not neuroscience can trace brain activity underlying decisions, making the decision still resides within the domain of an individual’s mind. In this view, parsing unconscious and conscious awareness is less important than the ultimate outcome – a decision, and subsequent action, emerging from a single mind. If free will is drained of its power by scientific determinism, free-will supporters argue, then we’re moving down a dangerous path where people can’t be held accountable for their decisions, since those decisions are triggered by neural activity occurring outside of conscious awareness. Consider how this might play out in a courtroom in which neuroscience evidence is marshalled to defend a murderer on grounds that he couldn’t know why he acted as he did.

Some researchers have decided to approach this debate from a different angle by investigating whether our subjective experience of free will is threatened by the possibility of “neuroprediction” – the idea that tracking brain activity can predict decisions. The answer to this question is not, of course, an answer to the core question about the existence of free will itself. But it addresses something arguably just as important (maybe more so), because ultimately free will has little meaning apart from our belief that it exists.

In a recent study published in Cognition, researchers tested the question with hundreds of undergrads at Georgia State University in Atlanta. The students were first told about a high-tech cap that allows neuroscientists to predict decisions before people make them, based solely on brain activity. The students were then given an article to read about a woman named Jill who tested wearing the cap for a month, during which time neuroscientists were able to predict all of her decisions, including which candidates she’d vote for. The technology and Jill were made up for the study.

The students were asked whether they thought this technology was plausible and whether they felt that it undermines free will. Eighty percent responded that it is plausible, but most did not believe it threatened free will unless the technology went beyond prediction and veered into manipulation of decisions. Only if the neuroscientists had somehow changed Jill’s mind to make decisions she would not have otherwise made did most of the student’s think her free will was jeopardized.

A follow-up study used the same scenario but added language to the effect of “All human mental activity is just brain activity,” in an attempt to clinically underscore that neuroscientists could interpret and predict Jill’s decisions just by diagraming her brain activity. Again, the majority responded that free will was threatened only if decision prediction turned into decision manipulation.

From the free-will-as-illusion camp, we might expect a skeptical reply to this study along the lines of, “A majority of people thinking Bigfoot exists doesn’t make it so.” That’s an understandable response, but unlike belief in Bigfoot (or insert your favorite myth), the implications for belief in free will are significant. Our subjective understanding about how we process information to arrive at a decision isn’t just a theoretical exercise; what we think about it matters. And it will matter even more as science nears closer to touching uncomfortable possibilities we’ve only been able to imagine.

David Disalvo is the author of Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power to Adapt Can Change Your Life and the best-selling What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, which has been published in 10 languages. His work has appeared in Scientific American Mind, Forbes, Psychology Today, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Salon, Esquire, Mental Floss and other publications.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 21

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. After another war, it seems more clear that the Israeli siege of Gaza continues through “inertia.”

By Itamar Sha’altiel in +972

2. A new project looks to inspire a generation to bold new scientific innovation by stimulating creative storytelling.

By Michael White in Pacific Standard

3. Attempts to combat voter fraud should be balanced against a constitutionally guaranteed right to vote.

By Matthew Yglesias in Vox

4. More than meets the eye: Visual inspection is far from sufficient for guaranteeing the safety of meat and poultry. It’s time to reform USDA food safety systems.

By the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Center for Science in the Public Interest

5. Lifting teachers into leadership roles could help achieve the big gains for students we’ve been seeking.

By Ross Wiener in the Aspen Idea

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME technology

How Edison Invented the Light Bulb — And Lots of Myths About Himself

First Light Bulb
Still life of the first electric light bulb, invented by Thomas Alva Edison in 1879 and patented on January 27, 1880. Welgos / Getty Images

Oct. 21, 1879: Thomas Edison invents a commercially viable electric light

The electric light wasn’t Thomas Edison’s first invention, nor was he the first to create an alternative to gaslight. Electric lights already existed on a streetlight scale when, on this day in 1879, Edison tested the one he’s famous for. Though he didn’t come up with the whole concept, his light bulb was the first that proved practical, and affordable, for home illumination. The trick had been choosing a filament that would be durable but inexpensive, and the team at Edison’s “invention factory” in Menlo Park, New Jersey, tested more than 6,000 possible materials before finding one that fit the bill: carbonized bamboo.

Edison bragged about the filament’s efficacy and economy to a New York Times reporter who toured the factory just after his successful test run:

“As there is no oxygen to burn,” said Mr. Edison, “you can readily see that this piece of carbon will last an ordinary life-time. It has the property of resisting the heat of the current of electricity, while at the same time it becomes incandescent, and gives out one of the most brilliant lights which the world has ever seen. The cost of preparing one of these little horse-shoes of carbon is about 1 cent, and the entire lamp will cost not more than 25 cents.”

While Edison considered the invention his “crowning triumph,” it joined the long list of contributions that made him a record-holder for sheer number of U.S. patents — 1,093 — until the 21st century. His creations included the movie camera and the microphone, the phonograph and the mimeograph, the stock ticker and even the “stencil-pen,” a precursor to the tattoo gun.

And although his accomplishments spoke for themselves, Edison was equally prolific, and ambitious, in inventing myths to boost his reputation as a larger-than-life innovator, as a 1979 TIME profile notes. As a result, his inventions weren’t just scientific discoveries, but also prevarications. For one thing, he often claimed to be entirely self-taught, having never attended a day of school.

“Untrue,” says TIME. “He had at least three years of formal education as a child — a stint that was not unusually short in the rural Ohio and Michigan of his youth. As a budding inventor, he also attended classes in chemistry at New York City’s Cooper Union after realizing that his self-taught knowledge of that science was inadequate.”

He also boasted of never needing more than three hours of sleep a night. That’s a half-truth, although the full story may be even more impressive: He managed to piece together a full night’s rest by napping artfully throughout the day. Per TIME:

When the Ford Motor Co. archives were opened in 1951, researchers found many pictures of Henry Ford and his pal Edison in laboratories, at meetings and on outings. In some of these photos, Ford seemed attentive and alert, but Edison could be seen asleep — on a bench, in a chair, on the grass. His secret weapon was the catnap, and he elevated it to an art. Recalled one of his associates: ‘His genius for sleep equaled his genius for invention. He could go to sleep any where, any time, on anything.’

Read TIME’s piece on the 100th birthday of the light bulb, here in the archives: The Quintessential Innovator

TIME Research

Those Pesky House Flies May Actually Improve Our Health

House Fly
Getty Images

According to new research in 'Genome Biology'

The house fly is a rarely celebrated insect, but new research published Tuesday finally provides the pest with some positive recognition.

The house fly (Musca domestica) has a genome that could actually give scientists insight into pathogen immunity, helping humans live healthier lives, researchers write in the journal Genome Biology. And it’s all because of their, well, gross-factor. Since the house fly lives on animal and human waste, according to Science Daily, “[t]hey are an important species for scientific study because of their roles as waste decomposers and as carriers of over 100 human diseases, including typhoid, tuberculosis and worms.”

Their immunity system genes can be studied to help humans be healthier in toxic and disease causing environments, the researchers add, and detoxification genes could help scientists find better ways to manage toxic environments.

TIME Food & Drink

Why Does Pizza Taste So Delicious? Allow Science to Explain

A look at the chemical reactions that lead to that magical, magical taste

A few months back, an intrepid team of scientists declared that mozzarella is the best cheese for pizza because it melts, bubbles and browns better than any other varieties. Now, some other scientists from the American Chemical Society have taken an even closer look at the chemistry of everybody’s favorite cheesy food with this new video, part of the organization’s Reactions series.

“Whether it’s a plain cheese, a deep-dish stacked with meats or a thin-crust veggie delight, there’s just something about pizza that makes it delicious,” the video description explains. “There’s a lot of chemistry that goes into everything from dough to sauce to toppings to, of course, cheese.”

In particular, as the video explains, there’s something called the Maillard Reaction at work — and that’s what we all have to thank for the magical taste we encounter in every bite.

TIME Bizarre

Here Are the Most Terrifying Pictures of the Sun You’ll Ever See

A NASA photo taken Oct. 8 appears to look like Jack-O-Lantern. NASA/GSFC/SDO

The sun looks like it's ready for Halloween

Just in time for Halloween, NASA released photos of the Sun on Wednesday—and it’s looking a lot like a Jack-O-Lantern, and it’s kind of terrifying.

The images, produced by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio, aren’t photoshopped, but they do combine images from two wavelengths that typically emit gold and yellow.

The difference in the photo’s brightness is a result of different levels of energy and light emissions from the surface of the sun. More energy emitted results in a brighter appearance.

TIME Science

This Is Earth’s Biggest Storm This Year as Seen From Space

NASA/Reid Wiseman

NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman posted this shot from the International Space Station. 

Super Typhoon Vongfong is the strongest storm on Earth since the deadly Hurricane Haiyan swept through the Philippines last year, and it’s barreling up through the Western Pacific Ocean.

The storm, which was the equivalent of a Category 5 hurricane, is slowly losing steam, but it’s expected to near South Korea and the Japanese mainland by early next week. See an image of the massive storm as spotted and tweeted by Astronaut Reid Wiseman aboard the International Space Station above.

 

TIME Science

These Amazing Chemical Reactions Will Show You the True Beauty of Science

This incredible video depicts the mystical wonders of chemistry

lost-at-e-minor_logo

This article originally appeared on Lost at E Minor.

Even if chemistry isn’t your thing, and even if you fell asleep in almost every chemistry class, you’re sure to appreciate just how incredible science really is by watching this Beautiful Chemistry video. The video is a new collaboration between Tsinghua University Press and University of Science and Technology of China that make chemistry more interesting (and awesome) for the general public.

The first project of the collaboration used a 4K UltraHD camera to capture chemical reactions without the distraction of beakers and test tubes. So what you’re seeing is a chemical reaction in its finest form. And how fine it is!

(via Colossal)

TIME astrology

Astrologer Susan Miller On Why You Should Pay Attention to the Lunar Eclipse

Blood Moon China
Through multiple exposures, the blood moon is shown in Hefei, China on Oct. 8, 2014. Guo Chen—Xinhua/Sipa

The author of AstrologyZone.com's popular horoscopes explains October's 'Blood Moon'

Early Wednesday morning, at about 5:15am ET, the moon will turn an ominous shade of red as the earth passes between it and the sun. This is the second total eclipse in an unusual series of four consecutive total eclipses that began in April of 2014 and will continue through April of next year.

“It’s called a blood moon, but I don’t want people to be agitated by that,” popular astrologer Susan Miller tells TIME. And while the April 15 lunar eclipse signaled a time of conflict and even tragedy — Miller notes that was the day day Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria and the day before a South Korean ferry capsized leaving 300 dead and missing — “this one is much more gentle.”

In fact, Miller says the change that the Oct. 8 lunar eclipse brings, although shocking at first, will even be good, at least according to the stars. To understand why, we asked her all the questions you’d want to ask a famous astrologer.

What does a lunar eclipse signify?

“This eclipse is a full moon so something is coming from to an ending or culmination,” she explains.

“Eclipses are non-negotiable,” Miller says. “They end something and they brings something else. But it really needed to end… There’s a shock factor first, and then a solution that turns out to be so good that you realize, wait a minute, this is a blessing.

Miller recalls when she had a houseguest who “spent the whole year crying on my couch,” coincidentally over the course of a series of five eclipses. On the first eclipse, her husband asked for a divorce. On the second, he told her that he wanted to sell the house. Come the third the house was sold, fourth the property was split, and on the final eclipse the divorce was finalized.

So what do you do after that initial jolt of the eclipse?

Miller sees an eclipse as a dog pulling at your skirt, leading in a particular direction. Like Lassie. Or an aggressive French bull dog determined to be taken on a walk.

“They demand action,” she says. “If your mindset is, ‘It’s not convenient for me to be thinking about this,’ the universe laughs at you.”

So if you feel sick, go to the doctor. Even if you’re scared. Whatever the diagnosis, it needs to be treated. Furthermore, if you lose a job, don’t ask for it back. If a relationship ends, accept the breakup. “Just keep your dignity,” Miller advises. “We have to realize some people aren’t buying what you’re selling. “

And don’t panic.

“Even though initially all things look lost, take a breath, wait a few days, a gold triangle will kick in,” she says. (A gold triangle is a good thing.)

Who will feel this month’s eclipse the most?

While most people will feel it around Wednesday, Miller estimates 5% of TIME readers have already felt the impact of the eclipse, as dates are relatively flux in the astrological world. The degree of an eclipse’s impact, of course, varies depending on one’s birthdate.

Those who will feel it “right on the nose,” says Miller, include people born near October 8, plus or minus five days. January 8, plus or minus five days; April 8, plus or minus five days; and July 8, plus or minus five days.

“That includes the United States,” Miller says.

Say what about the United States?

According to Miller, countries aren’t exempt from the lunar eclipse. So yes, because America’s birthday is July 4th, the nation will also be affected by the eclipse, according to her predictions.

“When you look at Obama’s list of concerns around the world, it keeps growing,” Miller says. “All the astrologists knew that it would be a tough time for America. But we’ve had tough times before, this isn’t the first time we’ve had eclipses there.”

This eclipse in particular relates to reputation. “Edward Snowden had really damaged our reputation, and it looks like we have another little thing to go,” Miller says. “Maybe it’s the secret service? Something may come up later this week. It could be a top person stepping down?”

But Miller says that it is going to get better.

The takeaway?

Just remember to keep on, keeping on. No matter what, there’s a new moon on October 23.

“That one,” Miller says, “is nice.”


TIME Physics

Why LED Lights Won the Nobel Prize

Chances are you're using an LED right now

You might have heard that researchers, two Japanese and one American, recently won the Nobel Prize for Physics for inventing blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs), but you might not know what LEDs are and why they’re important. With energy-saving light bulbs becoming more commonplace and smartphone use as widespread as ever, there might be more LEDs in your life than you realize.

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