Return Home

No Special Now

Back to Episode

It's not only artists who rebel against time, many physicists too take issue with our standard notion of clock time. Some even deny time exists at all. Blame Einstein. We peer into Pandora's box of post-Einsteinian physics with Brian Greene, Michio Kaku and Lisa Randall to consider the implications of a world without time or choice. Complicating matters, neurologist V.S. Ramachandran offers yet more evidence that free will, even with something like wiggling your finger, is an illusion.

Read more:

Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe


Brian Greene, Dr. Michio Kaku, Dr. V.S. Ramachandran and Lisa Randall

Comments [27]

John Ashford from Naples, FL

Quantum time and the non-free will challenge can be better understood by looking into Wheeler's delayed-choice gedanken experiment with a single atom (mindBlown) :-) .

Jan. 12 2016 10:24 AM
Ben from Baltimore

I hear people saying that they have a choice to go one way or the other but we never go one way or the other. We are talking about a "being" that is spread out over all possibilities and able to instantaneously view and be a part of any of those possibilities. Like the electron, going from wave to particle as soon as its observed by this "being". My question is...if the body is not this "being" that is spread out and able to break down the moment into creation...then who is? What is? Why cant a rock (made of electrons as well) break down the wave function as the observer? What is inside of us that creates the breaking down of a wave? Does animal observation break this wave down to a particle?

Jun. 02 2015 04:13 PM
Windwolf from Southern California

That mysterious blip on the brain monitor screen prior to the "wiggle finger" thought, is awareness, i.e. non-conceptual awareness/being/presence. That is who we really are. All thought, action/behavior come out of awareness. Your scientists are so much identified with their cognitive processes, that they miss experiencing the essence of who they really are. Consequentially their research remains incomplete, regarding the blip which precedes thought. This understanding is where science intersects with spirituality. I recommend reading "The Light Behind Consciousness" by John Wheeler. it provides pointers to the non-conceptual awareness that we really are

Jan. 26 2013 01:21 PM
Azu from Charlotte NC

I find that finger wiggle study very suspect. How are the experimenters defining what a "decision" looks like in brain waves? Maybe the decision recognition process/method is incomplete or needs expansion. Also how can they be sure that this "spike" CAUSED the decision to be made. Just because event A occurs just before B does not mean A causes B. They may even be correlated but this does not imply causality.

I also have an issue with the multiverse theory. Dr Kaku did not mention the core assumption of that theory. That assumption is that the universe is infinite. One of the hosts did mention that this theory includes some "speculation", but it was a minor footnote rather than a notable disclaimer. Considering that there is nothing known to man to be infinite, I consider this theory fantasy. If this was the only issue with multiverse theory, then perhaps the idea would be closer to reality. However, there are other problems. For example, there was a part of the broadcast where they discussed differential probability and implied something to the effect that possibilities are tangible things (When someone decides something, what happens to the other possibilities? Do they cease to exist?). They compared this example to quantum physics and finding the locations of small particles. The problem with this analogy is that possibilities are merely a representation of what is unknown at any given moment. So when someone makes a decision, the other possible choices do not disappear because they never really had essence to begin with. They existed only in our CONCEPTION of the problem of how that person will behave. In reality, there was only one possibility: what IS.

Jan. 22 2013 05:03 PM
Dan from Philadelphia

For Christo (below) one of the original experiments regarding Readiness Potentials and free will was done in 1965 by Kornhuber and Deecke (two germans). The study is in German, and can be found through paid subscriptions to medical lexicons like PubMed etc. I tried reading the study, but I don't know German. The title is [CHANGES IN THE BRAIN POTENTIAL IN VOLUNTARY MOVEMENTS AND PASSIVE MOVEMENTS IN MAN: READINESS POTENTIAL AND REAFFERENT POTENTIALS] ... published in "Pflügers Archiv für die gesamte Physiologie des Menschen und der Tiere" Volume 284 Page 1.

There were other studies that built on this one, published later ...

Jan. 21 2013 02:38 PM
Dan from Philadelphia

They don't talk about a key aspect of the experiment: that the "free" part of the free will is when the subjects decided to partake in the experiment and play by the rules. They agree to move their finger sometime in the next 3 minutes. The decision to move their finger sometime in the next three minutes primes the brain for the readiness potential Ramachandran talks about. The brain knows it has to move within 3 minutes. The real will here is the will to move the finger within the prescribed time period. That the brain generates a readiness potential within that time frame is not surprising. Once the brain understands the parameters and agrees to those parameters, free will is sacrificed or put on hold.

Jan. 21 2013 02:30 PM
Ruth from Faribault, MN

Curious to know if anyone in the thumb wiggling experiment showed a blip, but did Not wiggle their thumbs at all. In the end, I'm with Robert Frost on this one!

Jan. 19 2013 03:57 PM
anna from cincinnati, oh deciding to move your finger coming after you "decide" to move your finger isn't proof of having no free will. your brain IS you. so maybe you don't verbalize, in your mind, that you want to move your finger before your brain sends the impulse to your finger - but since your brain is sending the impulse, it's still you deciding. so there's a delay between the motor movement and the verbal part of your brain forming the thought into something you recognize, but that doesn't mean it isn't an intentional voluntary action.

Jun. 28 2012 12:04 PM
Eric Boelling

Great show. I have to admit that I was, at first, a bit thrown by the wackiness of the first story but I've been dwelling on his approach to time since (that story made me think of this amazing exercise in time, travelling through time in one take: But what has really got me thinking is the finger wiggling story. I agree with Jen (above) - I think it's more a matter of lag time, like seeing a jet before hearing it. A musician's hands often know the instrument without conscious thought. I was trying to demonstate how to tie a knot to my son earlier this week and I had to let my hands do it first before my mouth could explain it. There must be more to us and our brains than 'cogito ergo sum'.

Jun. 11 2011 12:11 AM

Does anyone know where to find more info about the original experiment (or any subsequent ones) regarding monitoring brain signals and moving one's finger? I've tried googling it, but maybe I'm wording it wrong or it's just getting buried in other irrelevant sites.
If anybody knows, I'd really appreciate it!


Apr. 14 2011 03:11 PM

Before getting freaked out by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics as presented here, it may pay to be aware of the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics (see This does away with the many-worlds hocus pocus, and is (at least for some of us!) a far more intuitive and logical way of interpreting the physics.
Great show, as always! :)

Mar. 17 2011 02:09 AM
Kelcey from Chennai, India

Is there a way for Radiolab folks to list the musical excerpts of episodes? There is an electronic music segment at the end of this section that is fabulous. How do I find it?

Feb. 06 2011 01:01 AM
Jen Duane from Columbus, Ohio

I think there's a reasonable explanation for the Free Will experiment. Is it not possible that there is a lag between thinking something in the brain and experiencing that thought in your brain?

Another way of thinking about it is that there is a lag in the point at which we experience (process in our brain) an event to when that point of time actually happened. I.e. everything happens a tiny bit before we perceive it happening.

I think for this to be possible, though, you have to experience external events faster than you perceive internal events (external events, like the sound and light from the blip on the brain wave machine, internal events = thinking something before you experience yourself thinking about it).

Aug. 28 2009 03:44 PM
Paul from Detroit

Free will? Hmmmm. Maybe I misunderstood the finger-wiggling experience, but it sounded to me as if the movements were all predicted by brain activity occurring a significant time before the actual movement. This cannot be true for all movements, however, because people can demonstrate reaction times faster than the second lapse between the blip and the wiggle.

What if somebody tells you wish finger to wiggle and you quickly comply with the instruction? Would the early signal from the brain be able to predict which instruction was coming? I doubt it. But still you would be able to comply with the instruction in less time than the lapse between the blip and the wiggle.

Jul. 24 2009 08:05 AM
1reflex from Nyc

Listening to notion of "not having free will" got me thinking .. about you missing one imp point. You are looking at our universe in 1 dimension but it is infact multiple dimensions.

So "maybe" as you put it, all the moments are in fact frozen BUT in a multi-dimensional picture, so you still have the free will so choosing the 'fork on the road' but what happens if you decided to go left instead of right is frozen! And in some other universe at the same moment you (from the other universe) might choose to take right while u in this universe took left.

Am I making sense?

Jun. 26 2008 04:05 PM
Alex from Dirty Jerz

I enjoy the earlier science episodes much more than the current. This is not to say I do not enjoy the new ones too.

I had a thought about the finger twitch and explaining free will: Our free will determines what we want but our brains determine when.

The finger twitcher decided they wanted to twitch there finger but they are unable to decide when it is done? Just a thought

I wonder if people who mediate have a shorter time between bleep and twitch...

May. 29 2008 07:02 PM
Wayne Hyatt from Philadelphia, PA, USA

The fact that my brain signals my choice long before I wiggle my fingers, while extremely fascinating, does not lead directly to a conclusion that I have no free will.

A) I can imagine an experiment that would show that the time is sufficiently long to allow me to change my mind (if I choose to), and

B) Free will can happen before I become consciously aware of it - that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

Mar. 03 2008 12:37 AM
Marney Allen from Saint Paul, MN

I don't see why no time or all times happening simultaneously leads to the conclusion that there is no free will.

I understand the interest in trying to puzzle out if time exists or not, but I don't see why removing time from our life equation removes free will.

It's still your decision to move your finger, it's still your decision to have chocolate or vanilla. Removing time from the equation just means you don't know in which order your finger wiggling or your vanilla decision happened, or perhaps it means it happens all at once.

Time is just the order of things. It is sequence. It helps us understand change. I don't see any particular reason why having time in our equation equals having free will.

Sep. 24 2007 02:22 PM
Luc Kedzior from Chocolate Universe

(Clarifying, the other "me's" don't think how I think, live where I live, nor does the ice-cream shop exist in their universe because it's owner is the descendent of the man who thought that he IS going to test that flying machine of his afterall- history is changed, but there's no ice-cream in the neighbourhood! -if anyone had even stumbled upon the idea of ice-cream, they eat yogurt- it's huge in those universes)

Aug. 14 2007 11:47 PM
Luc Kedzior from Chocolate Universe

How can quantum physicists say, "there's another me that's eating vanilla/chocolate ice cream"? It seems they're totally ignoring the fact that our ancestors made a choice to procreate with a certain person. So if my great great great grandpa said "I'm going to have little Kedziors with THIS person and not that" and then repeat that for every choice of partner, then my genetics would have been so radically changed that I wouldn't even be the same person anymore. Needless to point out the choice that most couples make together of how many children to have- meaning certain great aunts/uncles/neighbour WOULDN'T EXIST! Being the fourth child in a family, it's rather likely that I WOULDN'T EXIST! (Therefore my children wouldn't either) Maybe one of my ancestors considered being a priest and said no (he was leaning 65% that way). Good thing too, because that would've erased my family tree! Simple answer- I'm the only me in all of the Universes.

Good Brain Food.

Aug. 14 2007 11:22 PM

Did the release date get postponed, or am I missing the link somewhere? Love the show, Im waiting to complete my collection.

Aug. 13 2007 10:03 AM

Also, common sense is bunk. It is a blanket term for what is invisible to society at this moment. It was common sense in Hegel's or Nietzsche's time that women were less than men. It was common sense in 1760 that different races equaled different brain capacity. I always wonder what's invisible now, what in 200 years will be common sense that we can't even begin to see.

Jul. 31 2007 05:58 AM

Maybe there can be free will and all moments existing at the same time simultaneously. Choice could somehow play into the universe, or the universes, and the universe(s) would do the same into choice. Frozen moments and choice, at the same time.

Jul. 31 2007 05:54 AM
Stephen Seymour from Billerica, MA

Awesome! Thank you so much!!! I'm totally looking forward to it! I remember the section in the show about free choice and the illusion of wiggling your finger really throwing me for a loop when I listened to it originally, and now I can be thrown again!



Jun. 30 2007 09:28 AM
Radio Lab

Hi Andrew and Stephen,

Sorry for the confusion. Here's how you can get a hold of Season One. Pasted below are links that will take you to archive pages where you will find links to download a specific episode. Currently, due to rights issues, only "Who Am I?," "Time," and "Stress" are available this way. But "Beyond Time" and "Emergence" will be released via Podcast later this summer (dates pasted below). Again sorry for the confusion and thanks for listening!

Who Am I? can be found here:

Time and Stress can be found here:

Season One (Podcast release dates):
"Beyond Time" July 31, 2007
"Emergence" August 14, 2007

Jun. 28 2007 11:20 AM
Radio Lab


If you subscribe to the Radio Lab podcast through iTunes, back episodes from Season 1 are available for download. Just open iTunes and search for Radio Lab in the Podcast directory.

Radio Lab

Jun. 11 2007 12:19 PM
andrew palley

Where's the podcast of this show?? This is the one which got me interested. Now all of my kids and my friends listen to it and talk about it. One of the great radio experiences--ever. Thank you.

Jun. 08 2007 09:44 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.