Conscious intention and human action: Review of the rise and fall of the readiness potential and Libet's clock

Conscious Cogn. 2021 Sep:94:103171. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2021.103171. Epub 2021 Jul 27.


Is consciousness-the subjective awareness of the sensations, perceptions, beliefs, desires, and intentions of mental life-a genuine cause of human action or a mere impotent epiphenomenon accompanying the brain's physical activity but utterly incapable of making anything actually happen? This article will review the history and current status of experiments and commentary related to Libet's influential paper (Brain 106:623-664, 1983) whose conclusion "that cerebral initiation even of a spontaneous voluntary act …can and usually does begin unconsciously" has had a huge effect on debate about the efficacy of conscious intentions. Early (up to 2008) and more recent (2008 on) experiments replicating and criticizing Libet's conclusions and especially his methods will be discussed, focusing especially on recent observations that the readiness potential (RP) may only be an "artifact of averaging" and that, when intention is measured using "tone probes," the onset of intention is found much earlier and often before the onset of the RP. Based on these findings, Libet's methodology was flawed and his results are no longer valid reasons for rejecting Fodor's "good old commonsense belief/desire psychology" that "my wanting is causally responsible for my reaching.".

Keywords: Bereitschaftspotential; Consciousness; Decision; Epiphenomenon; Free will; Hard problem; Intention; Kornhuber; Libet; Neuroscience; Readiness potential.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain
  • Cognition
  • Consciousness*
  • Contingent Negative Variation
  • Humans
  • Intention*