Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Current neuroscientific research does throw light regarding a lot of brain activity that goes on beyond our “conscious awareness” – that is to say invisible to our I-consciousness. Being transparent, it is no wonder that such an activity is not under our “conscious” control.

We think of our I to be running our show. Neuroscientist Dr. Deric Bownds suggests a small experiment to put a chink in this concept: Close your eyes and relax. Tell yourself to have no thoughts for a minute or even half a minute. (Unless you are a trained meditator about which we shall discuss sometime later), don’t you find that it is impossible not to have any thoughts? You have “consciously” decided not to think. You asked your brain to ‘shut up.’ But thoughts keep popping up. Where do they come from?

[There was an estimate that nearly 13-15 thoughts occur in a second. Just simple relaxation may reduce them to about half but never to zero.]

Dr. Benjamin Libet and his colleagues carried out an interesting study nearly three decades ago. They asked a volunteer to push a button whenever he felt like it and note the time on a precision clock when he decided to push. They took an EEG of the brain at the same time. They observed that the report of awareness of volunteer’s intention to push the button was way behind a spike they noticed in his brain waves. Repeated experiments by them showed that our awareness of our decision was almost ½ second behind the appearance of the spike.

Or simply put, if I decide to wiggle my finger at this moment, my brain actually commenced to pass necessary operational instructions to the finger muscles etc. way ahead of “my conscious decision” of now!

Does this mean I have no ‘Free Will’ to decide on what I do? Does some power beyond me control what I do and my actions? This was a spirited debate Dr. Benjamin’s work kicked up. And it continues even to today.

Recent work by Dr. Haynes and others confounded the problem further. They repeated the experiments on the lag in our conscious awareness using more sophisticated techniques like fMRI available now. Their work showed that the brain appears to make up its mind by as much as 10 seconds before we become conscious of our decision!!

Scientists are able to monitor the pattern of the brain activity during this lag period and predict (with computer help) what your decision is going to be much ahead of your own awareness of what you are going to decide!!! (Of course, these are at present at laboratory level only).

Research on ‘Decision making’ established another very interesting aspect connected to our ‘conscious’ logical approach vis a vis unconscious decision making. In many complex unresolvable situations, leaving the problem to the unconscious results in a better decision!!!!

Who is really deciding on your action -- you with your I-consciousness or somebody else sitting in your brain? Who is the "doer" of the action? Is there a power beyond the brain?

Please feel free to offer your comments.

Added on 04 Sep 2012:
Can we live without free will?
New research has reignited the debate about whether humans truly have free will. 

Brain might not stand in the way of free will:
Advocates of free will can rest easy, for now. A 30-year-old classic experiment that is often used to argue against free will might have been misinterpreted.

Added on 11 Apr 2013:  
Brain imaging spots our abstract choices before we do:

"We already had evidence that it is possible to detect brain activity associated with movement before someone is aware of making a decision to move. Work presented this week not only extends it to abstract decisions, but suggests that it might even be possible to pre-emptively reverse a decision before a person realises they've made it."

1 comment:

Dr. M K Sarma said...

It appears that every Purana has five features, one of which is

concerned with creation, under a name such as "Srushti Prakaranam"

To my understanding of the Puranas I studied, this subject has four

concepts : 1a) Mahat, 1b)Virat and 2a) Ahankara, 2b)What is not

explicitly stated as sareera.

The sareera is considered to be different in different states, awake,

dream and deep sleep. But I took the liberty to assume 2b) as the

Sareera in our wakeful state.

To my understanding of Purusha Sukta almost a compulsory part of our

Pujas, Everything we observe and feel is a manifestation in one quarter

of the ONE,(named as Purusha), the rest of the three quarters being

in changeless bliss.

My understanding is that "Mahat" as the Universal mind, "Virat" as the

universal matter, "Ahankara" as a branch of "Mahat" associating itself

with a branch of Virat functioning as sareea.

The observation of time lag of 10 seconds between a spike in fMRI and

the awareness of the occurence of a will, does point to features

Science must grasp to explain the role of brain in the functioning of

the body.

Statistics grapples with myriads of random events. Quantum Mechanics

deals with the probability of a happening and views matter as a

manifestation of mathematics emerging from the principle of

conservation of energy (The Schrodinger waVe equations and their


The situation does high light two needs: (1) Precise understanding of

the concepts of ancient Knowledge like Veda and its offshoots must be

attempted by constant comparison with developments in Science and (2)

Science should seek new vistas from ancient Knowledge.