I’ll get straight to the point. This is an important paper, albeit one hiding behind the most reticent and least illuminating title. Let me translate it for you. In simple terms the scientists asked people to imagine one of two images. The choice was theirs. When they had chosen, they immediately pressed a button. Meanwhile the scientists looked at their brain activity. To cut a long story short, the patterns of brain activity predicted what the choices would then be. And these patterns occurred before the subject made their conscious decision. In some cases, up to 11 seconds before they decided. In other words, the scientists knew what decision the subjects were going to take before they took that decision.
So what does that mean? Firstly it means that it is possible, without being sensationalist, to read the thoughts of the subject, albeit within a limited range, say the choice of red or green objects. But I’m sure it won’t be long before this limited capability becomes a much more extensive facility. CCTV already knows where we are. FMRI can now say what we are thinking. More to the point it can tell what we’re thinking before we can.
Secondly, it suggests that conscious decision-making is an illusion. The brain makes the decision and conveys this to the mind. The brain allows the mind to continue to believe that it, the mind, makes the decisions. The opposite is true. In other words, consciousness is a narrative rather than an executive function. It reports, in the first person, what it has received in the third person from the brain. The mind is simply the way the brain presents itself the outside world.
Most of our legal system is of course based on personal responsibility. In other words, we are responsible for our decisions. That’s all well and good if we (and by “we” I mean our minds) are making decisions. But if we are simply the product of an internal decision-making system, where does that leave us? How can one be culpable if one is not responsible? If the brain is taking the decisions based on its own agenda, how can we blame the mind, acting as a go-between.
Of course it’s not just legal issues that are relevant. If you take away the notion that the mind decides, you instantly take away free will. Most religion is based on the notion of good and evil and a succession of choices between those two poles. If we have no free will, we are innocent of our choices and their consequences. In catholic terms, we are free of original sin.
Sounds good? Well, not really. Take away free will and accountability and you lose track of the notion of karma. No free will, no karma. In other words the baddies go unpunished. I could go on. Of course, those of a religious persuasion can always argue that, whatever the data, the Almighty would certainly have the wherewithal to cover his tracks. It’s not my place (or intention) to offer an opinion here.
The authors of the paper couch their findings in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder and the ways in which images filter up from the subconscious to the conscious. They brush aside the notion of volition in their concluding remarks – not as a dismissal but more as the recognition that they have opened a pretty big can of worms.
Food for thought? You’d have to ask the brain.