The concept of free will has been studied and discussed for generations. At some point, you’ve probably asked yourself, “Is my life really my choice? Or am I at the whim of my subconscious?”
A team of scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute for Technology Lausanne asked the same question, wondering how much bodily signals determine our mindset and actions. To figure that out, they looked at something called “readiness potential” and how it is affected by our breath.
And not only did the findings suggest we’re more likely to perform an action on an exhale, the team observed how breath seemed to be the precursor to every action.
What is “readiness potential”?
All of this research was based around “readiness potential,” or the instant of brain activity before a person even becomes aware they’re going to perform an action.
It’s observable in brain scans just before we exercise our will, which some say proves free will doesn’t exist because the brain seems to commit to the decision before we do so consciously.
But after this study, scientists have shown readiness potential is actually regulated by our breathing cycle, eliciting some fascinating questions about how the mind-body works together to make decisions.
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The breath comes first.
To conduct their study, the team had 52 participants simply press a button at their own will while hooked up to brain, breath, and cardiac scanners.
Interestingly, both pressing the button and the readiness potential to perform the action were affected by breath (but not heartbeat). The findings suggested that our regular breathing cycle is actually intrinsic to readiness potential and, subsequently, decision making. They also observed people are more likely to act on an exhale than an inhale.
“Voluntary action is indeed linked to your body’s inner state, especially with breathing and [exhalation] but not with some other bodily signals, such as the heartbeat,” says senior author of the study Olaf Blanke, which may be “just one example of how acts of free will are hostage to a host of inner body states.”
Could it be that the decision-making process is just as much up to the body as to the mind? It’s starting to look like it, which could have real implications for people who struggle with voluntary actions (Parkinson’s) and impulse control (OCD). It also offers valuable insight into what it means to be human.
While the exact neurological decision-making process is still not fully understood, these findings provide a new take on the highly debated free will conversationâ€”and give us all more reason to breathe a little deeper.
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