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LATEST DIALOGUES Meditation, Hypnosis, and Free Will


Image from Pindyurin Vasily

In a new twist on the classic “free will” experiment, meditators, average people and people who can be easily hypnotized were compared.  The results hint that although nobody has free will, meditators have more awareness of their own inner processes than average and easily hypnotized people have less.

In 1983, Benjamin Libet authored the famous experiment that challenged our notion of free will.  He measured electrical activity in someone’s brain while asking them to press a button, whenever they liked, while a special clock allowed them to precisely record the time they believed they made that choice.

The result: the part of the brain that controls movement lighted up more than half a second  (550 milliseconds to be precise) before the finger moved.  Astonishingly, somewhere in that window of time, around 350 milliseconds after the brain initiated the movement, the person had the impression of deciding to move their finger.

In the new study, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK’s Peter Lush and his collegues redid the experiment sans brain electrodes on 57 volunteers, 11 of whom regularly practices mindfulness meditation.  Not having access to the moment brain activity started, the team simply compared the time subjects reported choosing to act to the time they actually moved their finger.

They found that even though, presumably, everyone became aware of the decision way after it was initiated, the group of meditators had less of a gap: they thought they chose to move 149 milliseconds, on average, before they did move, versus 68 milliseconds for non-meditators.  The “easy to hypnotize” people performed the worst, reporting a choice a full 23 milliseconds after their finger actually moved.

Assuming Libet’s figure of 550 milliseconds between brain activation and movement still holds, this would imply that the length of time between movement initiation and the moment people believe they make a choice to move is:

  • 401 milliseconds for meditators
  • 482 milliseconds for average people
  • 572 milliseconds for easily hypnotized people

The authors’ interpretation is that meditators “become aware” of their “unconscious brain activity” sooner than others.  But what is this “unconscious” that chooses for us?


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4 Responses to “Meditation, Hypnosis, and Free Will”

  1. September 13, 2016 at 4:29 am, leesajohnson said:

    I found the article to be very informative and inspiring. Meditation in my use is a self-development technique. Meditation may alter the individual but it cannot alter reality and thus free will. It does alter the experience of life, the experience of free will. Before years of meditation, I was trapped.

    • September 15, 2016 at 2:59 pm, dana (dany) said:

      > this would imply to me that meditation is an effective tool to help avoid flooding of past trauma into the present moment, which gates me off from access to the neo-cortex; this happens by giving me a moment more to respond before the flood hits–the moment to put the past back where it belongs, and respond only to the present moment stimuli; no more hiding in the reptilian brain Bradshaw references

  2. September 15, 2016 at 4:57 pm, roycsmith said:

    I’ve noticed in meditation how a thought arises from seemingly nowhere and grabs your attention until you are sort of obliged to act on it, which brings up more thought. If you keep your focus on the source of the thought, physical reality tends to vanish from view and you merge with source instead of the thought. Its like flowing backwards into a fountain of light energy coming from a place of knowing and eternity.

  3. December 05, 2016 at 10:28 am, Karl Gary said:

    Concerning Libet’s study: I do not know, it seems pretty linear to me.

    I have a thought: I want to move my finger.

    So the brain lights up before I move my finger, to move my finger.

    And then the brain Lights up again telling me I am moving my finger and I become aware of it.

    It seems a trigger to action is first on the list of processing, and then you are made aware of the action that you engaged.

    If anything, it could prove a thought of consciousness may have originated outside the mind and as it rolls through the mind, action is first, followed by the awareness of the thought to the mind and body.

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