Free Will on a Spectrum

We all know what we mean by voluntary and involuntary action. You want to grab onto a handle, and you get it right. You want to walk from point A to point B, and, sure enough it happens.  These are voluntary actions. But there are also involuntary actions that are part of everyday live. These are controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system, such as heartbeat, breathing, etc.

Obviously there is a clear line between the actions we have control over, and those we don’t. You cannot will your stomach from passing food through your gut, or blood vessels constricting or dilating to control blood pressure. Similarly, your hand does hot spontaneously start slapping you or grabbing you by the throat*.


Or is there?


In the 1970’s Benjamin Libet, did an experiment where his results found that brain activity spiked up to 300 milliseconds before subjects first became aware of an action (moving their finger).

This experiment contains both aspects of apparent voluntary and involuntary action. We tend to think that we can always trust our gut feelings when it comes to making decisions. But sometimes this instinctive feelings are wrong.

In a previous post, I mentioned the way our bodies’s relation to someting else determines the metaphors we use and how we think. Which of the images below would you associate with ‘Bouba’ and which one with ‘Kiki’?


Bouba Kiki






Associating Bouba with the shape on the left and Kiki with the shape on the right is automatic. You can’t help it.

….or try this one:


try not to think of a white elephant


Where do you draw the line between voluntary and involuntary action? Neuromarketing provides interesting insights into the workings of the involuntary nervous system (galvanic skin response, facial coding etc.), whereas surveys rely on voluntary responses to stimuli. I don’t think that one methodology is better than the other, but that there is a  place for all the different research methods, depending on the application.


*There is a case study in the literature of a patient with brain damage where the patient’s one hand start to dress himself, and the other hand, simultaneously is undressing himself.

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