Saturday, 9 April 2011

Unwelcome ideas - part I

Every now and then, you come across somebody with something important to say, yet their ideas are at odds with mainstream discourse. I’m not sure why it is. Perhaps there are valid, but unwelcome ideas which do not sit well with hierarchical societies.

For me, the experimental psychologist Benjamin Libet is one such person. He spent a substantial part of his life on the experimental investigation of a particular phenomenon with profound implications for our notions of free-will and personal responsibility.

A typical Libet experiment involved a subject raising his or her arm at random and noting the time when they made the decision to raise it. Libet also logged the subject’s readiness potential, a neurological event, recorded via electrodes, a precursor to bodily actions. So we have time at which the subject decided to raise their arm (Td) and the time when the readiness potential indicated the arm was about to be raised (Tr). Libet typically found that Td was a few hundred milliseconds later than Tr. In other words, the arm-raising decision had been made neurologically before the subject became aware of making it.

The implications for free-will and personal responsibility are obvious. Libet wrote a very readable account of his work in his book Mind Time, which I’d recommend to anyone interested in unwelcome ideas.

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