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March 24, 1993

Neurophysiology, Philosophy on Collision Course?

JAMA. 1993;269(12):1485-1486. doi:10.1001/jama.1993.03500120019005

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SCIENCE MAY be on a collision course with one of society's most cherished beliefs.

Rapid advances in neuroscience may shed new light on the old question of whether humans have free will. The existence of free will—the ability of humans to act as moral beings not subject to physically or divinely imposed necessity—is a cornerstone of law, religion, and most people's own understanding of themselves.

Researchers already are beginning to devise ways to correlate the mushrooming amounts of data on the genetic, cellular, molecular, and electromagnetic details of neurologic phenomena like perception, learning, memory, emotion, sexuality, aggression, and decision making into what they hope will be a map of the human brain (JAMA. 1993;269:1357).

"We can actually look at the brain in close to real-time operation, and see the processes that underlie decision making as they occur," says Michael Merzenich, MD, professor of physiology and otolaryngology, and founding member of