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Free will and the brain

06 oct 2014 09:30 - 16:00

Institut d’études avancées de Paris

17 quai d'Anjou, 75004 Paris

Tél. + 33 (0)1 56 81 00 52

plan d’accès 


Atelier interdisciplinaire organisé par Itzhak Fried, résident à l'IEA de Paris

The problem of free will has accompanied the human condition since ancient times but has been primarily the province of philosophy. The vast and rapid developments in neuroscience over the last few decades provide some interesting empirical data and potential insights into this problem. Tantalizing findings in brain research, originally by Benjamin Libet followed by numerous subsequent studies, some from direct neurosurgical observations using electrical stimulation and recordings from the human brain, suggest that specific brain activity, evident even at the single neuron level (Fried et al., Neuron, 2011), is present prior to, not only action itself, but also prior to the conscious recognition of the will to act. Thus “free” will can be decoded and predicted from neural activity prior to volition experienced by the self.

While human will is preceded by specific neuronal activity, volition can also affect neuronal activity, in fact override the neuronal signals reflecting incoming sensory stimuli (Cerf et al., Nature, 2010). Volition therefore stands in the interface of past and future, constantly shaped by past and present neuronal activity while at the same time shaping ongoing and future neuronal activity.

Modern neuroscience of volition thus poses formidable challenges to the humanities and social sciences. Three central themes bear scrutiny and discussion. The first involves the benefits and risks associated with external observer’s access to the private unconscious domain of the individual, exemplified by the potential for mind assistance or enhancement on the one hand, contrasted by the hazards of mind reading and mind control.  The second invokes the need of modern society to reassess psychological, sociological, philosophical and legal implications of individual responsibility in the view of seemingly deterministic multivariate preconscious brain activity.  The third theme is the province of disorders of human will, such as obsessive-compulsive disorders where the will is harnessed to repetitive dysfunctional acts, or major depression where human volition and initiation are muted.

Finally, individual volition and action, may find manifestation in extreme disorders in the social domain, where interactions among brains provide fertile ground for widespread amplification. Such amplification, enhanced perhaps by mirror neuronal mechanisms, may be found in contagious changes in individuals within groups.  Such processes may underlie the striking transformation of previously nonviolent “ordinary” individuals into “willing executioners” in widespread acts of violence, which may lead to genocide. I have previously described this transformation as a syndrome for which I offered the term Syndrome E (Fried, Lancet, 1997).

The aim of the workshop is to discuss freely this set of questions, plan for a larger symposium to be held in 2015. 


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