How do you decide if the deciding is already decided for you?


First, Goal Progress: In bed by around 11:45 p.m. Jan 13, Up at 9 a.m. Jan 14. Sigh. We can see what my natural pattern is.

More from Keeper: one house, three generations, and a journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies:

I also come across some rather startling research to do with the electrical impulses that carry information between neurons. Apparently, studies of the action potentials have found that they fire up before we decide they should be doing whatever it is that we’ve asked of them: for instance, to turn a page or flip a fried egg or pick up a stone on the beach. Experiments showing this to be true were begun by the research scientist Benjamin Libet in the 1970s, and continued in 1985 in a scientific trial done with people who flexed their wrists at will and signaled the moment of deciding by marking the position of a rotating disk. Extraordinarily, it was discovered that the appropriate neurons fired up a full half second before the moment the subjects “decided.” The interval is known as Libet’s delay. In terms of the speed of the electrical impulse, a half second is a very long time. What seems to be happening is that something below or aside from consciousness is making decisions before we think we are making decisions. Something else in us, backstage of our deciding, appears to be deciding before we decide. It reminds me of a British TV series called Yes Minister, in which civil servants manipulate a member of the government, convincing him that he’s in charge when the truth is that the real decision making is going on elsewhere. In April 2008, an experiment using fMRI scanning not only confirmed that Libet’s delay exists, but went further, showing decisions can be predicted up to ten seconds before deciders “decide.” (Or course, it’s possible to argue that these are ten seconds in which the subject is observed in readiness, preparing to do something as instructed by the experimenter.)

This raises all kinds of questions for me about the nature of self and instinct and mind. If we’re not consciously making decisions, then what part of us is? (Note I said what part of us, not who.)


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