Couple of Free Will studies:
Laypersons' belief in free will may foster a sense of thoughtful
reflection and willingness to exert energy, thereby promoting
helpfulness and reducing aggression, and so disbelief in free will may
make behavior more reliant on selfish, automatic impulses and
therefore less socially desirable. Three studies tested the hypothesis
that disbelief in free will would be linked with decreased helping and
increased aggression. In Experiment 1, induced disbelief in free will
reduced willingness to help others. Experiment 2 showed that chronic
disbelief in free will was associated with reduced helping behavior.
In Experiment 3, participants induced disbelief in free will caused
participants to act more aggressively than others. Although the
findings do not speak to the existence of free will, the current
results suggest that disbelief in free will reduces helping and
A spark of free will may exist in even the tiny brain of the
humble fruit fly, based on new findings that could shed light on the
nature and evolution of free will in humans.
Future research delving further into free will could lead to more
advanced robots, scientists added. The result, joked neurobiologist
Björn Brembs from the Free University Berlin, could be "world robot
"Seriously though," Brembs said that programming robots with
aspects of free will "may lead to more realistic and probably even
more efficient behavior, which could be decisive in truly autonomous
robots needed for planetary exploration."
Better understanding aspects of free will in humans also could aid
in the treatment of mental disorders where people face problems
controlling how they feel, think or act, such as depression, obsessive-
compulsive disorder, anorexia nervosa, schizophrenia or attention
deficit hyperactivity disorder, Brembs told LiveScience.
For centuries, the question of whether or not humans possess free
will — and thus control their own actions — has been a source of hot
"Free will is essentially an oxymoron — we would not consider it
'will' if it were completely random and we would not consider it
'free' if it were entirely determined," Brembs said. In other words,
nobody would ascribe responsibility to one's actions if they were
entirely the result of random coincidence. On the other hand, if one's
actions were completely determined by outside factors such that no
alternative existed, no one would hold that person responsible for
"We speculate that if free will exists, it is in this middle
ground" between randomness and determinism "that is currently not well
understood or characterized," said mathematical biologist George
Sugihara at the University of California at San Diego.
Insects and other animals are often seen just "as very complex
robots," Brembs said, for which behavior is determined solely by
reactions to the outside world. When scientists observe animals
responding in different ways to the same outside cues, such variations
are typically attributed "to random errors in a complex brain," he
Not just random
Brembs and his colleagues reasoned that if fruit flies (Drosophila
melanogaster) were simply reactive robots entirely determined by their
environment, in completely featureless rooms they should move
completely randomly. To investigate this idea, the international team
of researchers glued the insects to small copper hooks in completely
uniform white surroundings, a kind of visual sensory deprivation tank.
These flies could still beat their wings and attempt to turn.
A plethora of increasingly sophisticated computer analyses
revealed that the way the flies turned back and forth over time was
far from random. Instead, there appeared to be "a function in the fly
brain which evolved to generate spontaneous variations in the
behavior," Sugihara said.
Specifically, their behavior seemed to match up with a
mathematical algorithm called Levy's distribution, commonly found in
nature. Flies use this procedure to find meals, as do albatrosses,
monkeys and deer. Scientists have found similar patterns in the flow
of e-mails, letters and money, and in the paintings of Jackson
Pollock, Brembs said.
These strategies in flies appear to arise spontaneously and do not
result from outside cues, according to findings detailed in
Wednesday's issue of the journal PLoS ONE. This makes their behavior
seem to lie somewhere between completely random and purely determined,
"and could form the biological foundation for what we experience as
free will," Sugihara added. "This function appears to be common to
many other animals."
Brembs said that "even a fly brain possesses a function which
makes it easier to imagine a brain that creates the impression of free
"If even flies show the capacity for spontaneity, can we really
assume it is missing in humans?" he asked.
Condition for free will
Neuroscientist Gonzalo de Polavieja at the Independent University
of Madrid said these findings in flies point "to a complex decision-
making processing underlying behavior. This seems a necessary
condition for free will."
Brembs did not think flies had free will, per se. He also stressed
their results did not suggest free will existed in humans or
elsewhere. "We only showed that brains might possess a faculty which
free will could potentially be based on," Brembs said.
The degree of spontaneity that animals evolve could be linked with
the niches they occupy in nature, Brembs added.
"There is a hypothesis out there which claims that only the
flexible birds [with more spontaneous behavior] remain in a seasonal
habitat, while less flexible, stereotyped or deterministic birds
migrate," Brembs said. "Animals in very tightly constrained niches,
such as maybe gut parasites, have among the most deterministic
behavioral repertoire compared to other animals, because any variation
in behavior might be deadly.
"The epitomes of indeterministic behavior are humans, who are very
flexible. Flies are somewhere in between the extremes with a large set
of very inflexible and rather predictable behaviors, with spontaneity
only coming to the fore if either you look very closely or provide the
animals with a situation where the spontaneity is easy to study — that
is, when you remove all the stimuli which could trigger a response."
UCLA neurobiologist Mark Frye noted that future work should
isolate and understand the brain circuitry and genetic pathways
responsible for this spontaneous behavior in flies "and whether or not
they are conserved in other animals."
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