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Free Will Keeps Evading (But It Ain’t Over Till the Encephalogram Sings)

free will keeps evading - Sam wearing EEG headband
Hairy me vs hairless me

—Written by Samuel Kuhn—

These two photos just about summarize the past 5 weeks of searching for the Readiness Potential. I’ve hit a stone wall trying to replicate it so that it could bring me one step closer to understanding the free will phenomenon!

I have been collecting EEG data just about every day trying to get this signal to come through, and we have gone more than 4 weeks without seeing this signal, as I described in my introductory blog post. It is disheartening when you fail in your science, but all the same I think it is the moments when things seem the worst that we have to do our best.

free will keeps evading - a successful recording of readiness potential
This is what precedes our acts of free will!

So to give you a little context for the struggle I am going through, this is the signal I am looking for. This was recorded in 2016 by a previous BYB fellow named Patrick Glover. The readiness potential is an electrical signature in the brain that tends to show up right before someone is going to make a free-will based action, like a dance move or a flex of the wrist. In the graph above, you can see the rise in the green EEG line before the vertical line representing the time when the movement occurred. This is the readiness potential.

Although we are using the same setup as Patrick was using, we are not getting the readiness potential at this point, but we may just be doing one subtle thing wrong. One of the ways I think about what I’m doing is like searching for the border of a state with a microscope. We know from 50 years worth of research that this signal should be there the same way we know the southern border of Texas is the Rio Grande. However, we are using homemade EEG equipment, and in order to rigorously investigate the brain, we have to make fine adjustments to isolate where things are going wrong and why we might not be seeing the signal.

In order to do this, I have had to learn to make progress in the face of constant failure. This means that you have to get REAAALLLY creative, because when you fail to prove a hypothesis, you have to quickly come up with a new feasible hypothesis to investigate in order to solve your problems. In my project I have tried varying:

  • electrode placement, 
  • experimental protocol, 
  • recording equipment, 
  • recording software/firmware, 
  • subjects, 
  • and yes, I even shaved my head to try to get a better signal.

(The latter was totally worth it. No more getting electro gel in my hair, and alpha waves were a breeze. Sadly, hair grows back fast at my age. Bet you’d never hear someone complain about how fast their hair grows back!)

Nonetheless, it didn’t matter what I changed; I just couldn’t get this signal… until.

I was working late one Friday night when I decided to cut the science for a minute and just play with the BYB equipment like I was a kid. I had no interest in proving the Readiness Potential to anyone else, I just wanted to understand it for myself, so I started recording from my own head. 

I was doing some different things like varying the protocol so that I would watch a clock ticking while I would do a voluntary movement, or I would watch videos of numbers repeatedly counting down from 12 or 3. I was getting nothing until I tried counting down from 3 out -loud. When I tried this, I got an EEG signal that looked like this.

EEG signal that looks like readiness potential
Lo and behold, the Readiness Potential (or its look-alike)!

I am ecstatic that I was able to induce a signal that matches the character of the Readiness Potential, but it troubles me that I had to alter the protocols so much to do so. I obviously need to continue to attempt to replicate previous studies, but if I am consistently unable to do so, I may look into possibly trying to explain the Readiness Potential in some totally new way. Either way my approach will be the same: come up with a hypothesis and then gather data to attempt to fortify the hypothesis.

No matter where this project goes next, I am happy that I’m pursuing it, because I am learning so much and having so much fun getting to pry into my own mind with the magic of this equipment. I pinch myself in the morning when I wake up, because I can’t believe that I get to go to work and throw on an orange headband with EEG electrodes attached to it and do some of the coolest science that has ever graced the planet. (No offense, physics!)

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