Tag Archives: The Mysteries of the Brain

Free Will & Sight-Reading

Catching up with a podcast of Start The Week, I was delighted to be pointed in the direction of The Mysteries of the Brain – a series of programmes on BBC World Service by Professor Barry Smith.* In his discussions with Andrew Marr, he referred to experiments carried out by John-Dylan Haynes, which pointed to the illusory nature of free will. Volunteers were asked, repeatedly, to decided whether to press a button with their left or right hand while in an fMRI scanner. Evidence of brain activity, which enabled those reading output to predict with 100% accuracy which hand would be used, appeared up to 7 seconds before the volunteer was aware of their conscious choice. John-Dylan Haynes describes the situation as follows:

Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done.
I couldn’t help wondering what kind of activity would be produced by someone sight-reading this:
[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/nuvzMq0YZ3k?rel=0" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]
I wonder if, one day, we’ll have much more of a handle on what helps us turn a skill, with which we are not born, into a learned reflex and of ways in which this can be done more effectively. Perhaps until then we’ll need to content ourselves with the following equation:
10,000 hours = expert

You can listen again to Professor Smith’s series here.
You can see John-Dylan Haynes lecture on this material here.

* I first came across Professor Smith in an excellent episode of In Our Time on Ludwig Wittgenstein.