What is free will? Do we have free will at all? And how does impulsive behavior influence it? Let me answer your queries by starting with a basic definition. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, free will is “the power or capacity to choose among alternatives or to act in certain situations independently of natural, social, or divine restraints.”
The Key Elements of Free Will
Now, that’s quite an earful, so let me split this definition into several explanations.
First of all, free will is about a person’s power or capacity to take action. This means that the person has full ability and control over one’s brain to form decisions and act on them.
This is why, for instance, some people are exempt from serving a sentence on the grounds of insanity. What the court says is not that the person is not guilty – but that they did not have the free will to decide on committing the deed.
What is free will, then, from this point of view? It is a manifestation of a sane person, in control of their actions and decisions.
Then we move to the next key aspect – independence from various constraints. These are: natural, social, and divine:
• Divine constraints, of course, refer to religious grounds on which people feel obliged to do or abstain from doing certain things. It is the basic definition of “sin.” If you do this, you have sinned.
But, in refraining from doing that action because you perceive it as a sin, you are not acting under free will.
• Social constraints are the written and unwritten rules of living together with other people in large groups (cities, towns, villages, tribes, etc.). One example of a social constraint is not going naked in public.
Thus, one of the rules of society is that we must cover our bodies with clothes.
Does wearing clothes, then, mean we are not acting under free will? Some would believe so. For instance, some people choose to streak (appear naked in public) as a form of protest;
• Natural constraints are our own impulses that compel us to do or not to do certain things. This is what falls under impulsive behavior – such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, and various other similar conditions.
Does Free Will Really Exist?
The next issue that people have asked themselves from time immemorial is: do we really have free will? This topic is approached by all religions and by many philosophical schools.
For many people, the issue is not what is free will, but do we have free will at all?
Determinists, for example, believe that everything that happens in someone’s life, every action they take, and every choice they make is decided for them by a higher, divine authority.
In their view, people cannot act in any other way than they do, because they are controlled by a higher power that guides them in one direction or another.
Then, there are the compatibilists – this school of thought believes that free will can coexist with determinism. That is, that people make some choices out of their own free will, while others determine by divine intervention.
What Is Impulsive Behavior?
Every one of us must have experienced this type of behavior at least once in life. You suddenly take a course of action and later you wonder why you did that. Then you say: “I don’t know what made me do that.”
But is it really something we cannot control? And does impulsive behavior limit our free will? These questions have moved away from the realm of philosophy and religion and entered the more precise fields of neuroscience and psychology.
Scientific Research Attempts to Determine What Is Free Will
One of the first scientists who attempted to find what is free will is neuroscientist Benjamin Libet. In 1983 he experimented with a group of participants.
Each participant had EEG electrodes attached to their scalp to record their brain activity.
All they had to do was to bend a finger, at their own choice, as they were watching a clock-face. The clock-face had a rotating dot.
Thus, the participants had to record the position of the dot as soon as they formed the decision to bend the finger.
What Did the Experiment Prove?
After the experiment, Dr. Benjamin Libet compared the brain activity of each participant to their record of the position of the dot on the clock-face.
And he discovered something interesting. Each EEG showed a spike in the brain activity at around 350 milliseconds before the participants formed the decision to bend the finger.
In Dr. Libet’s (still controversial) interpretation, this spike in brain activity was proof that we do not have free will. He argued that the neurons in our brains actually rule over the decisions we make.
However, that is not all. Libet noted a secondary spike in brain activity. It occurred at 200 milliseconds between the moment decision was formed, and the moment the finger actually moved.
Dr. Libet defined this as the “veto window” – the period when the subject still can reject the decision and not perform the action.
Recreating Dr. Libet’s Experiment with a Focus on Impulse Behavior
Over two decades after Benjamin Libet’s experiment, two scientists from the Free University of Brussels repeated it.
In 2006, Emilie Caspar and Axel Cleermans decided to take a fresh approach to the finger flexing experiment.
However, they started the experiment by asking the participants to fill in questionnaires that would determine how impulsive they were.
After the experiment, the researchers looked for connections between impulsive behavior and the time between spikes in brain activity.
How Does Impulsive Behavior Influence Free Will?
In all the situations, Caspar and Cleermans found that people with impulsive behavior have a shorter “veto window.” That is, the second spike in the brain activity occurred sooner after the initial one which formed the decision, compared with people who were not impulsive.
Also, the scientists noted the same shorter veto window for participants who declared that they suffered from Tourette’s syndrome or schizophrenia.
If you want to read the entire research paper written by Emilie Caspar and Axel Cleermans, you can find it in the Neuroscience of Consciousness journal.
What Conclusions Can We Draw from These Studies?
First of all, it is clear that we still have no satisfactory answer to the fundamental question: does free will exist? But, looking at the definition of what is free will and correlating it with Caspar and Cleermans’ findings, we can agree on one thing.
People with impulsive behavior have less freedom of revoking a decision than others. The time frame between the moment they form a decision and the moment when they perform it is shorter.
So, does this mean that they have less free will than others? Share your opinions in the comments below!