The readiness potential in the study of conscious free will Aaron Schurger (Psychology, Chapman University, Orange, CA ) PL8
The readiness potential (RP) is a slow buildup of neural activity in pre-motor areas that precedes the onset of a self-initiated movement by up to one second or more. Contemporary neuroscientific accounts of human volition lean heavily on the RP as a temporal maker of the brain processes leading up to movement onset, even though the nature of the RP (i.e. what it reflects) remains unclear. Depending on how one interprets the RP, one might conclude, as Libet did in 1983, that the conscious feeling of deciding to move emerges far too late in the process to play any causal role in the initiation of action. Although the precise relationship between the RP and conscious volition remains highly controversial, the interpretation of the RP as a signature of "planning and preparation of volitional acts" has held strong for decades. However, recent evidence has begun to cast doubt on that interpretation and some alternative accounts of the RP have begun to gain traction. I will discuss these alternative accounts of the RP, and their impact on our understanding of human volition. A small change in the way that we interpret the RP can have a profound impact on how we interpret data that seem to bear on the question of conscious volition. Whatever ends up being the truth about the role of the RP in action initiation, I will argue that we need to clearly understand the nature of movement-preceding neural activity before we can conclude anything about conscious free will. The data that we have to date suggest that the conscious feeling of intending to act is cobbled together from neural information that emerges before, during, and just after action initiation. I will conclude by arguing that closed-loop real-time interventions using invasive recording techniques are the way forward in the study of conscious free will.