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Free Will Or Free Won't? What Is Bereitschaftspotential And Do We Really Have Control Over Our Actions?

Updated on May 17, 2012

The debate between determinism and free will probably goes back to the time of the first thinkers who wondered about life and its happenings. This is an ancient debate in which those who subscribe to the idea of free will will never give in to those who hold the idea that things should be somehow predetermined and that we have no real control whatsoever.

However, to those who are familiar with the neuroscience of free will, that is, the scientific study of whether or not we actually possess such a thing as free will, things are not looking good. Due to some recent discoveries, scientists might have started believing in something else entirely, something that we might call "free won't."

Choices might be made unconsciously based on external conditions.
Choices might be made unconsciously based on external conditions.

What is Bereitschaftspotential or Readiness Potential?

Bereitschaftspotential (German for "readiness potential") is a neurological term that refers to a measure of activity that occurs in the motor cortex of the brain before any voluntary muscle movement is consciously decided. Hans Helmut Kornhuber and Lüder Deecke at the University of Freiburg, Germany, were the first scientists to report the discovery of BP in 1964.

Professor Kornhuber and his student kept the electroencephalogram and electromyogram of fast finger flexions (self-initiated movements) on tape and analyzed the cerebral potentials prior to movements time-reversed starting with the movement as the trigger. The readiness potential, that is, the presence of a potential preceding voluntary movement was discovered.[1] What does this mean?

The Bereitschaftspotential is electrical activity in the brain that signals the participation of the supplementary motor area preceding volitional movement that begins activity before the primary motor area. There is an electrical sign in the brain that says we are going to move a body part even before we know we want to move it. The discovery of the BP has raised questions about free will worldwide, the discussion of which continues to this day.

The most famous experiments in regard to the relations of the readiness potential and free will were conducted in the 1980s by Benjamin Libet[2] who recorded that the BP began approx. 0.35 seconds earlier than the subject's reported conscious awareness that they felt the desire to move. Libet's conclusion was that humans possess no free will in the initiation of their motor activity, even though we are capable of stopping intended movement at the last moment. This veto or ability of cancellation is sometimes called the free won't.

Libet's experiments have provoked fiery debates and have recently been discussed by Klemm.[3]

Benjamin Libet's Experiment

Benjamin Libet (1916 - 2007) was a researcher in the physiology department of UCSF. For his research into human consciousness, initiation of action, and free will, he received the Virtual Nobel Prize in Psychology from the University of Klagenfurt in 2003.

Libet's initial investigations in the 1970's revolved around measuring the amount of activation at certain sites in the human brain required to trigger somatic sensations. This research led to an investigation into human consciousness and his famous series of experiments aiming to show that pre-conscious electrical activity in the brain called Bereitschaftspotential or readiness potential occurs prior to conscious decisions to carry out volitional acts, suggesting that pre-conscious neuronal processes may cause volitional acts that are then experienced as consciously motivated.

Libet's findings suggest that free will plays little part in the initiation of movement. Some suggest this is because conscious experience takes too much time to build up to be really responsible for taking action.

According to Libet's findings, volition is only exercised in the form of a veto, which is sometimes called free won't. This notion of "free won't" proceeds from the idea that conscious acquiescence is required to permit the unconscious buildup of the Bereitschaftspotential to be actualized as a movement. Therefore, consciousness is likely to play a part mostly in suppressing certain acts started by the pre-conscious, a kind of veto, which consciousness has about 100-150 milliseconds to exercise.

The development of the readiness potential in the left and right hand experiment.
The development of the readiness potential in the left and right hand experiment.

Recent Neuroscientific Studies of Free Will

Some recent neuroscientific studies of free will have explored the question, 'To what extant do rational agents maintain control over their decisions?' Researchers have started studying the brain in decision making processes fully aware that if findings should challenge people's belief in the idea of free will, this would affect their sense of agency and of moral responsibility in life.

At some point, should our confidence in the power of conscious choice begin to decline, it might become necessary to train unconscious habits in humans to achieve a better degree of human agency, the ability to maintain control over one's life despite challenging external conditions.

Researchers and psychiatrists such as Jeffrey M. Schwartz suggested that neuroscience is on the way to proving that self-awareness training and habit training can have a significant impact on what decisions people will make in life.[4]

According to recent studies, a person's brain gives the impression of committing to a decision before the person develops awareness of having made that decision. Using modern brain scanning technology, scientists in 2008 could predict with 60 percent accuracy whether a subject would use their right or left hand to press a button about 5-10 seconds before the subject became conscious of having made that decision.[5]

Of course, no single study will disprove the existence of free will, as the term itself may contain quite different hypotheses about what it is that we call free will and in what it resides. Our tools of observation and measurement are still in some ways insufficient to draw a precise picture of how human choices and decisions are made. Conscious decision making and its realization might reside in different parts of the brain, allowing for free will to be exercised even though the conscious realization comes to us a few milliseconds later.


[1]Kornhuber, H. H.; Deecke, L. (1964). Hirnpotentialänderungen beim Menschen vor und nach Willkürbewegungen, dargestellt mit Magnetbandspeicherung und Rückwärtsanalyse. Pflügers Arch Eur J Physiologie.

[2]Libet, B. (1985) Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavior & Brain Science.

[3]Klemm, W. R. (2010) Free will debates: simple experiments are not so simple. Advances in Cognitive Psychology.

[4]Jeffrey Schwartz, Sharon Begley (2002) The mind and the brain: Neuroplasticity and the power of mental force, New York: Regan Books.

[5]Soon, C.; Brass, M.; Heinze, H.; Haynes, J. (2008) Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience.


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    • profile image


      3 years ago

      "आपक अपन अप क ष ओ क अ तर व र ध क भ सर वम न य हल क द श म सक र य ह न च ह ए "म ल म त र त यह ह ... आपक प स ट स food for thought ट इप ह त ह ...

    • darkland profile image

      Daniel Brinker 

      6 years ago from Anchorage, Alaska

      Ever so true, Delores, it all starts at home. Mine were blessed with dispositions that were open to learning. It made it very easy. I think an awful lot of the problems come from never letting kids having time to think. It is really terrible when children are rushed from one thing to the next without ever having a chance to just sit and think. They are so brilliant. They just need a chance to really shine.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      6 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi, Haunty - The devil made me do it! Or an electrical impulse. Great subject. Makes me think how important it is to control the behavior of young children at an early age. So many parents just let things happen, let the kids go wild without interference. Training a young kid to have some impulse control makes life easier later on.

    • Haunty profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from Hungary

      Thanks for reading, darkland. I agree with you that a good education is essential to develop decision making skills that will make life a lot easier later.

    • darkland profile image

      Daniel Brinker 

      6 years ago from Anchorage, Alaska

      This was a good article showing empirical evidence to what most of us know observationally. We seem to exercise very little rational control in everyday decisions. Most people make decisions based on emotion as opposed to what makes sense. This is shown in everything from decisions about the stocks we trade, the furniture we buy and the cookies we choose.

      However, it is possible to determine future decisions by electing to "train" oneself now. That's why we find education useful. It gives us confidence and practice (which is just controlled decision making) to draw from before we have to actually make any given decision on our own.


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