Car accidents are the number one killer of teenagers in America!  There is something that should have been done a long time ago and that would help all drivers and of course their "victims".  We don’t do it, because people are afraid to doubt their own agency and rationality.  Benjamin Libet’s research is not difficult but people refuse to accept the science.  The pet assumption in this case?  That you are consciously aware of what you are doing at the time you are doing it, which you* are not!  Libet’s research [1, 2] quantified how large the problem is, and it is huge when sitting in a ton of metal bolting down a busy street.

Why are we not aware of what we are doing and why is that obvious even without Libet?  Sometimes I get a fast table tennis ball that deflected from the net, but still I react and smash the ball back into a corner where the opponent can't get it.  Starting from net-contact and counting until the ball contacts my racket, the flight times of these balls are as low as 0.2 seconds if I am close to the table.

Me scoring a point:  The time for these comparatively slow balls is already too fast for there to be conscious decisions involved (not my only excuse for having lost the set).

It is amazing what happens in these mere 200 milliseconds (ms).  There is the processing going on in my eye:  The calculation of contrast in local patches on the retina, and the time used up by data compression that crams the information of 1.3*108 receptors into only 1.2*106ganglions of the visual nerve.  Signal propagation from eye to visual center in the back of the brain needs at least a few tens of ms.  A relatively long time is needed for analysis through the different layers of the brain's visual center.

Therefore, it is obvious that we become conscious only of events that happened in the past.  But how far in the past?  The answer is more acceptable when also considering how little time there is before a (conscious) decision would have to be completed, which is long before the rest of the roughly 150 ms that are still left unaccounted for are over.  Such a decision must afterwards be communicated to the brain’s motor cortex.  There must still be time for the nerve excitations to go down all the quite slow and long corticospinal neurons and limb nerves into the muscles.  Subtract yet more time, because the heavy arm and racket has to be accelerated and move into the correct spot so that it has already the correct position and velocity when the ball hits.  How much time is left for a “conscious decision” to be made?

Consciously becoming aware and additionally making a decision after having been aware (at least some finite time) of the situation one needs to decide upon; these are advanced and calculation intensive brain functions where neural modules not just feed forward but also backward (loops, recursions), and it does not fit into such a small time at all.  The table-tennis player module in my brain needs to pull out one of the many exercised response moves, like hitting the left or right corner or doing some other trick, and do so without consciousness being involved.  Libet quantified how large the delay is:  I just watch what my body played about 0.3 to 0.5 seconds ago, because the time lag before we become conscious of anything is that long!  That is the reason for why life ends six meters above the ground after jumping from a 20 story building.

Once aware of this, one can confirm it indifferent ways.  I sometimes see balls pass me while my body puts the racket into the wrong spot.  I watch it seemingly in slow motion, thinking "oh boy", but I cannot do anything about it, because it is all long over and in the past.

We are about half a second behind - it could not be any other way.  Our life is a made up story after the fact, a making sense of what happened, rationalization of our blind zombie moves!  So if you drive fast and anything happens which you have not already well exercised automatic responses for, you likely end up in a heap of mangled metal.


Most people, including some big name academic “philosophers” [3], come up with refutations in order to desperately rescue their feeling of being in control.  Quantum mystic and time travel, or the brain having whole draft versions of possible futures experienced before sense data arrive, which is impossible from an evolutionary perspective alone.  Higher order brain functions do not only need a lot of time, but are also otherwise expensive, for example in terms of resources like energy, or the fitness costs due to having such capacity at the ready at all during evolution (those are the most energy consuming, vulnerable neurons).  Natural selection selects against any waste – there is a reason for that almost no species have a brain like we primates do, and everything in brains is efficient:  whatever does not need to be calculated is not calculated – it merely feels like as if, but it is not.  Consciously considering future makes only sense over long times, say when daydreaming.  Consciousness does not have any use over very short timescales.  It is too costly for being applied when useless, therefore natural selection cannot come up with such solutions (e.g. whole draft versions of possible futures experienced before sense data arrive).

These issues should be required knowledge without which a driver’s license is not to be granted.  Beginners (less than two years weekly driving) should never even reach the speed limit, regardless of how much they fool themselves to be in control.  Accident reports usually mention "as if in slow motion", or "came out of nowhere".  Those are not excuses, but honest descriptions of what is remembered, because we never realize anything before half a second later!  It is not even wrong memory, because what we experience is already a highly censured story, a crafted fairytale that makes most sense to us, fitting to our beliefs.  And this evolved for a reason!

It helps understanding many important issues:  Ask yourself why consciousness evolved so that it consistently tells us the wrong time labels rather than letting us know that we are lagging, which it could just as well.  Evolution is not on our side -we are pawns to its blind mechanisms, and so we are deeply fooled about basically everything.


* “You” means here the person as defined over short time spans (few seconds).  A primate (human) can report what it is doing at the time if described over a time span of many seconds, and it is in that sense aware of what it is doing [However, most people believe that the implied forms of consciousness are very different (reported consciousness versus phenomenal consciousness (subjectively experienced))].

[1] Libet, B., Wright, E.W., Feinstein, B., and Pearl, D. K.: Subjective referral of the timing for a conscious sensory experience. Brain 102, 193-224(1979)

[2] Libet, B.: Are the mental experiences of will and self-control significant for the performance of a voluntary act? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 10, 783-786(1987)

[3] Libet, B.: The experimental evidence for subjective referral of a sensory experience backwards in time: reply to P. S. Churchland. Philosophy of Science 48, 182-97 (1981)

[4] Libet, B.: The timing of a subjective experience. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12, 183-185 (1989)