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Barking up the wrong free: readiness potentials reflect processes independent of conscious will

Abstract

In the early 1980s, Libet found that a readiness potential (RP) over central scalp locations begins on average several hundred milliseconds before the reported time of awareness of willing to move (W). Haggard and Eimer Exp Brain Res 126(1):128–133, (1999) later found no correlation between the timing of the RP and W, suggesting that the RP does not reflect processes causal of W. However, they did find a positive correlation between the onset of the lateralized readiness potential (LRP) and W, suggesting that the LRP might reflect processes causal of W. Here, we report a failure to replicate Haggard and Eimer’s LRP finding with a larger group of participants and several variations of their analytical method. Although we did find a between-subject correlation in just one of 12 related analyses of the LRP, we crucially found no within-subject covariation between LRP onset and W. These results suggest that the RP and LRP reflect processes independent of will and consciousness. This conclusion has significant implications for our understanding of the neural basis of motor action and potentially for arguments about free will and the causal role of consciousness.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Devin Routh for assisting with data collection. This study was supported by a grant from the Templeton Foundation as part of the Big Questions in Free Will project led by Alfred Mele (to T.W., P.T., W.S-A, and A.R.).

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Correspondence to Alexander Schlegel.

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Schlegel, A., Alexander, P., Sinnott-Armstrong, W. et al. Barking up the wrong free: readiness potentials reflect processes independent of conscious will. Exp Brain Res 229, 329–335 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-013-3479-3

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Keywords

  • Readiness potential
  • Libet
  • Volition
  • Consciousness
  • Free will