Swiss scientists repeated experiments to test the existence of free will in humans and found that people make decisions more often during exhalation than during inhalation. This indicates a connection between the processes in the internal organs and the work of consciousness, the press service of the Federal Polytechnic School of Switzerland said on Thursday.
For many millennia, philosophers and scientists have been trying to understand how a person makes decisions and makes choices in various situations, including those when they do not have an obvious solution. Discussions on this topic, at the suggestion of the French philosopher Jean Buridan, for six centuries boil down to the question of whether a person has free will.
While scientists do not have unequivocal arguments in favor of its existence or not, however, in recent years, neurophysiologists and geneticists have found a lot of evidence that the structure of the brain has a strong influence on people's propensity to take risks, alcoholism, obesity and impulsive behavior.
In addition, back in the middle of the last century, German neurophysiologists noticed that the motor cortex of the human brain produces a special type of impulses, the so-called "readiness potential", almost a second before its owner made a decision and tried to perform this or that action. The existence of such signals has led many scientists and philosophers to assume that free will does not exist. Other thinkers disagreed with this and considered the "readiness potentials" to be a measurement error.
Physiology of free will
Professor Olaf Blanke of the Swiss Federal Polytechnic School in Lausanne and his colleagues repeated this experiment using modern techniques for observing brain activity. To do this, the scientists invited several dozen volunteers and asked them to perform a simple task - to press any random button on the numeric keypad with an interval of 8-12 seconds.
The main criterion for their success, in accordance with the requirements of neurophysiologists, was that they pressed the keys spontaneously, and not at regular intervals, counting seconds to themselves. In this case, as the authors of the original 1960 experiment noted, the actions of the volunteers depend solely on their will.
Unlike their German predecessors, Swiss researchers monitored not only brain activity using an electroencephalograph, but also other factors, including unconscious eye and limb movements, volunteers' breathing, heartbeat, and other "automatic" processes in the body.
These observations showed that the decision to press the button, as the "readiness potential" that preceded it, almost always occurred at the moment when the volunteer exhaled. This was typical for 19 out of 20 participants in the experiments, and similar results were obtained in the course of two subsequent experiments with a slightly different formulation of the problem and other groups of participants.
In one case, the scientists asked the volunteers not only to press the buttons, but also to look at the clock, independently measuring the time that elapsed between the birth of the "readiness potential" and the action, and in the second, they asked to press the button at the moment when the dial lit up green dot. In the first case, the actions of the volunteers continued to be associated with breathing, and in the second, this dependence disappeared.
Heartbeat and other "automatic" body processes that Blanke and his colleagues followed did not affect the volunteers' mental activity in a similar way. Why this is so, as well as how breathing actually affects free will, remains to be seen by scientists.