People who meditate are more aware of their unconscious brain activity – or so a new take on a classic “free will” experiment suggests.
The results hint that the feeling of conscious control over our actions can vary – and provide more clues to understanding the complex nature of free will.
The famous experiment that challenged our notions of free will was first done in 1983 by neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. It involved measuring electrical activity in someone’s brain while asking them to press a button, whenever they like, while they watch a special clock that allows them to note the time precisely.
Typically people feel like they decide to press the button about 200 milliseconds before their finger moves – but the electrodes reveal activity in the part of their brain that controls movement occurs a further 350 milliseconds before they feel they make that decision. This suggests that in fact it is the unconscious brain that “decides” when to press the button.
In the new study, a team at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, did a slimmed-down version of the experiment (omitting the brain electrodes), with 57 volunteers, 11 of whom regularly practised mindfulness mediation. The meditators had a longer gap in time between when they felt like they decided to move their finger and when it physically moved – 149 compared with 68 milliseconds for the other people.
This suggests they were recognising their unconscious brain activity earlier than most people, says Peter Lush, a member of the team, supporting the belief among meditators that it helps them to become more aware of their internal bodily process, he says. Such a result has previously been predicted by the Buddhist scholar Georges Dreyfus.
by Clare Wilson