Science Questions

How does training affect free will?

Thu, 27th Jun 2013

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Tom O Herlihy asked:

I saw an interview with an undefeated boxer about 30 yrs ago. He was asked how he knew when it was time to retire. He described a fight in which he saw his opening and then knocked out his opponent. The interviewer said 'How did that tell you?' And he said 'Up until then I had never seen the opening - I only ever saw my fist coming back out after the punch. That told me I was beginning to slow down.'


It suggests that free will might be complicated by training. His body was trained in advance of the situation to react to the circumstances before his mind would have time to. The decision is still his, just made in advance. More like free will and testament;-). It might be useful for these researchers to include sports people- sprinters or swimmers who are highly trained to complete complex tasks on a signal. Their reaction times are phenomenal and even as a type of control they should inform the research.


I love your podcasts, I'm lying in bed sick and listening to back issues as I never get to listen normally. Keep up the great information!


Thanks again for your podcasts,

Tom O Herlihy



Hannah -   First up, what is free will and how is it involved in trained movement? Dr Tristan Bekinschtein at Cambridge University has this to say…

Tristan -   Free will is the idea that you can decide something, feeling that you boxinghave the ownership of that decision. When you're learning for example to ride a bike or when you're learning to punch someone when you're training to be a serious boxer.  Those decisions initially, you have to think about them.  They slowly become automatic.  So, in a way, you're losing the free will while these things become automatic.  To take a decision and reflect on that decision to be sure that you're going to do it and then do it, it takes forever in terms of cognitive processing.  It takes 300 or 400, 500 milliseconds With training, the movements become so automatic that you forgot that you were making the decision to move.  In fact, you're not making the decision to move consciously anymore and if you're not making the decision consciously, therefore, you're not doing it in a free will manner.

Hannah -   So, as we learn new movements, we exert free will to control our bodies, but with training, this movement becomes automatic and conscious control is lost.  Movement is controlled in motor regions in circuits in the brain, but what happens here as we age?  Professor Patrick Haggard from University College London explains…

Patrick -   So, I think what happens to the boxer as they become older is that the circuits that allow them to land the punch don’t operate quite as fast as they originally did.  They begin to slow down just like a lot of our brain function slows down and after a while, they're operating sufficiently slowly that the boxer’s conscious experience can actually keep up with them, so he’s aware of what he’s doing.  So, his action control has slowed down over time to the same kind of rather slow speed that conscious cognition operates at and at that point, it’s too slow to beat his opponent and he ought to stop.

Hannah -   Is this type of phenomena found elsewhere other than during say, riding my bicycle or sports training like boxing?  Over to Dr. Gabriel Krieman at Harvard Medical School…

Gabriel -   This phenomena is also found in trained musicians playing complex pieces.  In many of these situations, consciousness seems to interfere with complex action patterns.  What consciousness and free bias is flexibility perhaps at the expense of lower reaction times.  Reflexes are faster, but they lack adaptability.  

As the question suggests, extensive training can transfer conscious actions into non-conscious reactions.  Crick and Kohr referred to this non-conscious reactions as zombie modes.  

Both systems, non-conscious reactions and conscious actions are important and have probably conveyed evolutionary advantages.

Hannah -   Thanks, Tristan, Patrick and Gabriel. 


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"Gabriel -  This phenomena is  also found in trained musicians playing complex pieces.  In many of  these situations, consciousness seems to interfere with complex action  patterns."

A book I read about the interplay between conscious and subconscious brain activity discussed sports and things like learning a musical instrument. The author made the comment that if you want to beat an opponent in tennis who is better than you, compliment him on his excellent serve and ask him how he does it. Once he starts to think consciously about all the movements he makes while serving, it will totally screw him up. cheryl j, Fri, 5th Jul 2013

So free will is the feeling that you have 'ownership' of your decisions, and only applies to decisions you are conscious of?

It seems to me that logically we have ownership of all our decisions - otherwise they would not be our decisions, conscious or otherwise. Of course, if we are not conscious of making a decision, we're less likely to feel ownership of it.

However, given that it has been shown that there are decisions you feel are consciously made, but which are actually made prior to your conscious awareness, free will seems to have a pretty fragile foundation.

I agree that it is a feeling, but it appears to be one of those concepts that become more vague the closer you examine them. My own view is that it is a social convenience that covers for our inevitable ignorance of the full complexity of the chains of causal events that lead to our actions.  So if you can identify a particular (subjectively adverse) influence on your decision, you can then say you did not make that decision of your own free will. dlorde, Sat, 6th Jul 2013

The object of training in many instances is to replace conscious action by a motor program - a skill - and eventually to the level of a conditioned reflex. Walking upright is a conscious action for a baby, a learned skill for a child, and walking at a constant pace, adjusting stride length to suit the gradient, is a conditioned reflex for most adults.

Free will is the decision to walk from A to B, to play a particular piece of music, or to sign up for a boxing match. You don't abandon it whilst doing the task because you can always choose your pace, vary your interpretation, or decide to throw in the towel - literally.

The difference between an amateur and a professional in almost any business is that the amateur trains until he can get it right, and a professional trains until he can't get it wrong - judging the terrain, reading every note, or deciding where and how to punch, have become at least motor skills, and dealing with trips, fast passages or opportunist punches have become conditioned reflexes.

Problems can arise if the skills become conditioned reflexes which may be inappropriate in some circumstances. Video studies of top level cricketers have shown that, facing a really fast bowler, an international batsman will have started moving his feet before the bowler released the ball, because he has studied the bowler's action and gaze (it's pretty well impossible to bowl fast without staring at the point where you want the ball to hit the ground) and the execution of the stroke is a reflex. So how can a slow bowler take wickets?  The real masters stare at the batsman's eyes or feet, and bowl by motor skill. The "wrong" spin, a slow ball from a fast approach, or pitching the quicker ball somewhere other than your apparent gaze point, means that the batsman's reflexes are inappropriate. Serious batting is always overlaid by a free will decision to attack (high risk, fast scoring) or defend, depending on the state of the game, but part of the art of bowling and field setting is to tempt the batsman into a high risk stroke and deliver the "wrong'un" at the right moment. alancalverd, Sun, 7th Jul 2013

In the case of boxers/soldiers and inappropriate situations can they really be held responsible for their actions after a time of conflict where their body is trained to react. On another note, I've never believed that video games could make a person violent, which I will have to rethink now. I guess if the person has trouble with separating fantasy with real life then the same affect could take place. Nathan, Thu, 22nd Aug 2013

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