Libet's Temporal Anomalies: A Reassessment of the Data

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Benjamin Libet compared the perceived time of direct brain stimulation to the perceived time of skin stimulation. His results are among the most controversial experiments at the interface between psychology and philosophy. The new element that I bring to this discussion is a reanalysis of Libet's raw data. Libet's original data were difficult to interpret because of the manner in which they were presented in tables. Plotting the data as psychometric functions shows that the observers have great uncertainty about the relative timing of events, as seen the shallow psychometric slopes. A second indication of uncertainty comes from Libet's use of three response categories, A first; B first; and A and B simultaneous. The large number of “perceptually simultaneous” responses provides a further measure of the difficulty of the judgment. There are thus a very broad range of stimulus delays in which the subject is unable to make an accurate ordering response. These points provide evidence that there is no compelling reason to invent exotic or ad hoc mechanisms to account for Libet's data since the uncertainty window is large enough to allow simple mechanism such as memory shifts. Libet argued that his data provide evidence for a backward referral in time. I argue that even though Libet's own data are weak, there are good arguments for a backward referral mechanism to help the subject make sense out of the tangled chaos of asynchronous information associated with experienced events.

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: School of Optometry, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California, 94720-2020

Publication date: June 1, 2002

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