How does training affect free will?

27 June 2013

Question

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

Answer

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 have 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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