The Neurocognitive Bases of Human Volition

Annu Rev Psychol. 2019 Jan 4;70:9-28. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-103348. Epub 2018 Aug 20.


Volition refers to a capacity for endogenous action, particularly goal-directed endogenous action, shared by humans and some other animals. It has long been controversial whether a specific set of cognitive processes for volition exist in the human brain, and much scientific thinking on the topic continues to revolve around traditional metaphysical debates about free will. At its origins, scientific psychology had a strong engagement with volition. This was followed by a period of disenchantment, or even outright hostility, during the second half of the twentieth century. In this review, I aim to reinvigorate the scientific approach to volition by, first, proposing a range of different features that constitute a new, neurocognitively realistic working definition of volition. I then focus on three core features of human volition: its generativity (the capacity to trigger actions), its subjectivity (the conscious experiences associated with initiating voluntary actions), and its teleology (the goal-directed quality of some voluntary actions). I conclude that volition is a neurocognitive process of enormous societal importance and susceptible to scientific investigation.

Keywords: action; human; neuropsychology; volition; will.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Goals*
  • Humans
  • Neuropsychology / methods*
  • Volition / physiology*