Mind Shadows


Free Will & Consciousness Research: W. Grey Walter, Benjamin Libet, Hans Kornhuber, Lüder Deeke, & Risto Näätäen

Free Will & Consciousness Research: W. Grey Walter, Benjamin Libet, Hans Kornhuber, Lüder Deeke, & Risto Näätäen.

Benjamin Libet is most frequently associated with the Readiness Potential and its implications for free will, but W. Grey Walter (1910-1977), did pioneering work that brought early attention to the phenomenon in Britain and America, although similar findings had been made in Germany and later in Finland.

W. Grey Walter: Background

Born in Kansas City, Missouri, he lived in England from the age of five, and became interested in neurophysiology at King's College, Cambridge. Failing to obtain a Cambridge research fellowship, he did research at various London hospitals. This interest led him to work elsewhere in Europe as well as in the United States and the Soviet Union. He was not a communist party member but as a fellow traveler (so-called in that era) he had clear far-left sympathies and is the father of Nicholas Walter (1934-2000), a prominent English anarchist.

W. Grey Walter was a pioneer in the field of cybernetics. Between 1948 and 1949. he devised autonomous machines, robots Elmer and Elsie, that mimicked human behavior, which paved the way for popularization of cybernetic theory. Claiming his self-help teachings as founded on cybernetics principles, Maxwell Maltz, MD, a cosmetic surgeon, sold many books on Psycho-Cybernetics, essentially advising how the mind can be programmed. (A Biblical phrase puts it tersely, although with other intentions: As a man thinketh, so is he.)

By using Elmer and Elsie, W. Grey Walter established that consciousness complexity can arise out of simplicity in the brain--that a small number of brain cells can give rise to very complex behaviors. This, he felt, would establish that human consciousness is not immeasurably complex and can be studied by scientific means. By doing so, he wanted to demonstrate that human brain hard wiring could provide researchers with understanding of consciousness operations. Called tortoises because of their slow pace on three wheels, Elmer and Elsie provided models to understand brain organization. Capable of photo taxis (movement toward a light source), they could maneuver to a stationed battery charger when running low on power.

He conducted a "self-awareness test" on one robot by placing a light on the "nose" of a tortoise while he watched as the machine observed itself in a mirror. "It began flickering, twittering, and jigging like a clumsy Narcissus", he wrote. He held that this "might be accepted as evidence of some degree of self-awareness" if observed in an animal.

The electroencephalograph (EEG) machine, invented by Hans Berger, became a key instrument in his work. (In 1929, Berger, a German, discovered brain waves when he attached electrodes, one to the forehead, the other to the rear of the skull of a human subject. Because an EEG measures brain electrical activity, Walter revised the device so to detect a variety of brain waves, from alpha (high speed) to delta (low speed) as observed during sleep. By triangulating with the brain occipital lobe (at the back of the brain) he located the source of alpha waves. Delta waves were used to locate tumors or epilepsy lesions.

His work with EEG electronics led him in WW2 to help develop radar technology. In Winston Churchill's history of the Second World War, the former Prime Minister wrote about the debt Britain owed to the developers of radar, a system that was a key tool in scrambling RAF Spitfires aloft to intercept Luftwaffe bombers steady-on for England. Walter was one of those developers.

Free Will: W. Grey Walter, Benjamin Libet, and Other Experimenters

He paved the way for Benjamin Libet when in the 1960s Walter discovered the Readiness Potential, termed by him as contingent negative variation (CNV), which described a negative electrical spike appearing in the brain a half second prior to subjects becoming consciously aware of movements they are about to make. He gave his subjects a dummy button--it would not work--to change slides they viewed. They were told to press the button to change to the next slide. An electrode was attached so that their brain was wired to the slide changer. In fact, the slides were changed via the electrode by the Readiness Potential area of their brain, and before they could push the dummy button. Unaware their own brains had been the agent, the subjects complained that the slides were changing before they could push the button. They thought they had not actuated the change when in fact they had, but not by any decision on their part. The sense of decision came after their brains had already effected the change to the next slide. The slide changed before they had decided to change it. Thus decision, that to which we attribute deeds, was an illusion. This, of course, has far-reaching ramifications for what is loosely termed free will.

It suggests that free agency is an illusion and that we assume we choose when in fact we don't. Instead, we are creatures of cause and effect, determined by stimuli and forces in the environment.

The basic findings have been repeated by various experimenters as the concept is straightforward and its protocols are simple to devise. The term Readiness Potential has come into wide use because of translation of a German term with the same meaning, Bereitschaftpotential, as named by German researchers, Hans Kornhuber and Lüder Deeke. Kornhuber and Deeke had findings in a comparable behavioral context as a Finn, Risto Näätäen later had. Because various experiments have been conducted on the Readiness Potential with consistently similar results, we must conclude that the findings are not an anomaly.

Nor can their implications for consciousness and free agency be lightly dismissed, given the consistency in the experiments--that the decision to act follows the action. In effect, the observer can predict what the subject will do before the subject knows his own response.

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