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51. Benjamin Libet's Work on the Neuroscience of Free Will

William P.Banks and SusanPockett

Subject Mind and Cognitive Science » Philosophy of Mind
Cognitive Psychology » Psychology of Consciousness

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405120197.2007.00052.x


Approximately 40 years ago, Kornhuber and Deecke (1965) back-averaged EEG epochs from a series of movements made by their experimental subjects and found that voluntary movements are always preceded by a large, slow, event-related potential, which they named in German the Bereitschaftspotential . The English translation, now used interchangeably with the original term, is readiness potential (RP). Two decades later, Benjamin Libet (Libet et al. 1983) asked another set of participants to report exactly when they decided to initiate a particular voluntary movement, and then correlated this reported time of deciding to move (time W) with the objectively observed time of onset of the readiness potential in the same subjects. Libet's now-famous finding was that the RP began at least 350 ms before time W (see Figure 51.1 ). This single experimental result immediately ignited a heated debate, which has lasted another two decades so far and shows every sign of heating up still further. The issue is this. Libet's clear-cut finding was that his subjects consciously and freely “decided” to initiate an action only after the neurological preparation to act was well under way. This implies that the conscious decision was not the cause of the action. As a conclusion this may seem to be relatively innocuous, but it is not. If conscious decisions are not the cause of actions, it follows that ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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