The Flavor of Free Will

Psychology Professor Jesse Bengson and Students Measure Brain Activity to Predict Decision Making
September 25, 2017
Student Olivia Krieger, left, and Professor Jesse Bengson demonstrate a cap used to record brainwaves with student Alexandra Theodoroub

Student Olivia Krieger, left, and Professor Jesse Bengson demonstrate a cap used to record brainwaves with student Alexandra Theodoroub

In the 1980 Rush hit "Freewill," front man Geddy Lee sings, "I will choose a path that's clear, I will choose free will." But a psychology professor at Sonoma State University is looking into just how clear that path actually is.

"How do we make decisions?" asks Jesse Bengson, an associate professor of psychology researching cognitive psychology at Sonoma State. "These are very basic cognitive processes — for example, how to we develop expectations?"

Humans are inclined to believe we have control over every choice we make, says Bengson. "There are so many emotions that are based upon that idea that we are responsible for our own actions. I call it the flavor of free will."

Arbitrary decisions, he says, like being asked to pick a direction at a hypothetical fork in the road with no other details to draw from, are made by the brain with the randomness of a coin flip. Bengson and the students working in his lab at SSU are looking at brain activity to see what, if any, influence we humans might have on those split-second, coin-flip decisions.

In an ongoing experiment, Bengson, along with students Olivia Krieger and Alexandra Theodoroub, measures participants' brain activity milliseconds before and after making an arbitrary decision based on a visual cue.

The data collection for their research includes two-hour sessions with participants taking tests on a computer. Each participant wears a white headpiece resembling a swimmer's cap with 32 electrodes strategically placed to measure brain function. The brain activity is displayed as a voltage map on the computer screen, a visual known as an Electroencephalograph, or EEG.

Participants are told they will see an image, then asked to indicate whether they expect a happy or sad image upon seeing a visual cue, which is followed by an image chosen at random by the computer.

"Looking at the brain activity, we could say with significance whether they were going to choose something happy or something sad, before the decision had even been made," says Krieger. "This has an implication that the visual system has a role in whether we would choose something happy or something sad."

Krieger recently finished her Bachelor's degree at Sonoma State and is continuing her research in Bengson's lab. Originally, she wanted to study learning and memory with a focus on the educational system, but she found a connection with Bengson's work. "I thought, Oh, wow, this is learning and memory on another scale. I just got drawn in," she says excitedly. "I never would have guessed I would be working on such technical stuff. It's just fascinating."

Theodoroub, who also recently finished her undergraduate degree at Sonoma State, has discovered her love of research through working in the lab as an undergrad with Krieger and Bengson. "I never thought that I'd like doing research," she says. "But now here I am, and I couldn't see myself doing anything else."

The women will present their research at two conferences later this year.

Media Contact

Nicolas Grizzle