Tech UPTechnologyIf you believe in free will, you have it...

If you believe in free will, you have it clear


Try not to think of a white bear. Try it hard: don’t think of a white bear. Why can’t you avoid it? This is the experiment that Daniel Wegner, a Harvard psychology professor, subjected his students to. He then asked them to talk for five minutes about anything that came to mind. “They mentioned a white bear right away,” Wegner said. An experiment as simple as this one reveals to us how difficult it is to comply with what we have consciously and freely chosen.

Free will , which is the relationship between our thoughts and our actions, is a very dear possession , and ironically it is the first thing we try to shake off to exculpate ourselves from certain acts, of course negative. It is also curious how we shout to the heavens for any allusion to biological determinism – we do not like to be told that part of what we are and do is recorded in our genes – but we gladly accept the environmental determinism that swarms through newscasts , consultations of psychotherapists and courts. We use it as an excuse for everything: our bad actions are the cause of childhood abuse, pornography, alcohol, drugs, the lyrics of certain songs…

Wegner’s white bear experiment – which has been repeated even with impossible animals such as a green rabbit – is included in what is known as thought suppression , ceasing to have certain ideas in mind. As a mind control technique, it can create obsessions . In other words: if we spend the day pushing the idea of food out of our minds because we are on a diet, we will not stop thinking about it. That’s much worse than having it in your head all day.

The brain decides before you

In 1983 Benjamin Libet and his colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco conducted a peculiar trial. The participants had to observe a clock whose hand made a complete turn every 2.56 seconds. While keeping an eye on the hand, they were free to flex their wrist any time they wanted. All they had to do was make a mental note of the position of the hand when they decided to move their hand. For his part, Libet used electrodes to measure electrical activity in the motor areas of the brain and in the muscles involved in wrist movement. In other words, he could determine when the brain signaled the muscles to act and when the muscles went into action.

Libet found that, as expected, the desire to move the hand appeared before the subject was subjectively aware that they had made the movement . However, the surprise arose when he found that the actual nervous preparation for the movement appeared between 0.3 and 0.5 seconds before the subject consciously decided that he wanted to move his hand.

Libet’s experiment was the first impact on the waterline of free will. Those carried out since then show that the brain is ahead of our conscious intention when making a movement; leaves before hearing the starting gun. Not only that, Libet’s experiments show that we think we’ve started moving our hand 86 milliseconds before it actually happens.

The mirage of being free

Many scientists think that free will is nothing more than a mirage created by the brain. Mark Hallett of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says: “Free will exists, but it is a perception, not a guiding force. People experience free will. They think they are free . But the more you scrutinize, the more you realize we don’t have it.” Researchers like Wegner are not interested in deciding whether or not it exists, but rather why we think we have it. His experiments tell him that our brains are programmed to believe that if we think about something, that something will happen; It makes us believe that we control our actions . To illustrate this point, let’s look at what happened when Wegner brought a classic comic number to the lab. A person, in front of a mirror, wears a suit, but it is the arms of another person located behind that go through the sleeves. The funny thing is that if you are wearing headphones that tell you a moment before how your arms are going to move, a sense of control appears over them. The brain automatically assumed that it controlled those arms.

To what conclusion do all these works lead us? That there is no way to distinguish when our actions respond to our desires (for example, reaching for a cookie) from those in which it is an illusion. If our brain is unable to differentiate between the two, how can we be sure that free will exists? And most importantly, is this sense of control always a pipe dream? We do not know. Wegner compares conscious choice to a magician putting on his show. Apparently, the effects that the illusionist performs are caused by the movement that we perceive of his hands, but this is not the case. There is something else that we do not see and that is the real cause. The moral is that consciously deciding to do something doesn’t have to cause us to do it.

Of course, these results do not serve to justify our behavior: since there is no free will, I am not responsible for what I do. The fundamental problem with this is, as psychologist Steven Pinker points out, that we end up confusing explanation with exculpation . Do you know what is the most curious? Whether free will is an illusion or not, everything would continue as before.


Libet, B., Freeman, A. y Sutherland, J. K. B. (1999) The volitional brain: Towards a neuroscience of free will. Imprint Academic

Wegner, D. M. (1989). White bears and other unwanted thoughts: Suppression, obsession, and the psychology of mental control. Viking Ed

Slaves and Disabled: Forced Medical Test Volunteers

The main problem to carry out medical research is to have willing volunteers for it. And if they come out for free, much better. This is the story of unethical behavior in medical research.

When hyenas lived in the Arctic

These animals crossed from Asia to America through the Bering Bridge during the Ice Age.

How are lightning created?

Summer is synonymous with sun, but also with storms. Who has not contemplated one from the protection that the home gives that electrical display that is lightning?

How global warming will affect astronomy

Astronomical observations around the world will worsen in quality as a result of climate change, according to a new study.

New images of Saturn's rings in stunning detail

New images of Saturn's rings in stunning detail