Free will isn’t free

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It’s only two days before Christmas.  I know most people in the last forty-eight hours before the Yuletide would be focussing on last minute shopping for presents or foraging for the ingredients for their Christmas feasts, or making their last minute arrangements for their holiday celebrations.  So now may not be the right time to post something meaty about the philosophy of free will, but hey, it might just make for a welcome distraction.  Come with me, if you’re game, down the rabbit hole of our choices.

Dr Leaf, communication pathologist and self-titled cognitive neuroscientist, posted a quote today from former Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford, Keith Ward: “Free will is a place where people can decide to do what is right or to do what is wrong and nothing determines their choice – lots of things influence their choice but nothing determines it except them”.

But is it, really?  Clearly Professor Ward is a very learned fellow, but what strikes me about Dr Leaf’s quote of the day is Professor Ward’s false moral dichotomy, and his over-simplistic implication that every choice is a fully conscious choice.  Perhaps his quote is taken out of context by Dr Leaf and his intended message has been skewed.  It wouldn’t be the first time Dr Leaf has cherry-picked and misquoted.

Dr Leaf added in her ‘me too’ comment – “So we are responsible and can be held responsible for our choices – this is confirmed by science and scripture”.

I should say, it’s not that Dr Leaf’s comment is completely wrong – we are held responsible for our choices, but this isn’t confirmed by science or by scripture, it is something that is legal more than it is scientific or scriptural.

As humans, we have a strong feeling of voluntary control over our actions, that everything we do is something that we choose to do.  This sense of control is so fundamental to our existence that much of our social system depends on it, such as our laws and the penalties for breaking them [1].

Except that science has proven that our sense of full control is largely an illusion.

I understand this idea might be hard for some people to accept.  We’re taught that we have full control over our actions or ideas.  We experience this sense of control from the vantage point of our own perception.  It’s hard to believe that we’re not really in full control of our actions and choices.  The dominant paradigm in the Christian church is the idea of free will.  We’re taught that the words we say and things we do are the exclusive product of our will.  Cognitive neuroscience paints a different picture.

The modern neuroscience of the will started with Benjamin Libet.  Professor Libet was a researcher in physiology at the University of California San Francisco.  He was initially studying the electrical properties of different sensations in the brain, but in the early 1980’s, he performed an experiment to look at the electrical readings that take place when a person decides on an action.  His subjects would decide to perform a simple movement of their arm or hand, and say when they were aware of the intention to act.  Electrodes connected to the subject’s heads measured their brain activity before, during, and after their decision to act.

What was remarkable was that there was a clear spike in electrical activity occurring up to a full second before a test subject was consciously aware of the intention to act [2].  Libet suggested that an unconscious process was responsible for the ‘willed’ action.

Other studies since that time have confirmed Libet’s results.  In fact, a study in 2008 showed that predictable brain activity occurred up to eight seconds before a person was aware of their intention to act [3].

This predictable unconscious spike of brain activity prior to awareness of our intention to act has been verified over and over and is beyond doubt, but there’s still lots of debate as to exactly what it means.  Defenders of the idea of free will have tried presenting alternative explanations of the pre-awareness unconscious activity, but none of them line up with the proven, repeatable science.

So if we don’t have full conscious control of our actions, what does go on in our brains when we perform an action?

Again, I won’t go into the fine print, but it’s important to understand that our brain does most of its work at a subconscious level, which includes the planning and execution of our actions [4, 5].  The brain takes the information presented to it, as well as information from memories, and makes a prediction of the best course of action.  This means that our processing of goals, rewards, and actions can be affected by ‘subliminal priming’ (in other words, information we process below our conscious level can affect the decision about the best course of action [5]).

Even though we’re not aware of every process the brain employs in our subconscious to formulate the best plan of action and to prime our system ready for that action, there is a element of awareness that provides real-time monitoring and a veto function [4].  Like if you were about to complain about your job and then suddenly remembered you were talking to your boss, you could stop yourself from saying something you might later regret.

What does it all mean?  The take-away message here is this: We have limited will, not free will.

We still have some capacity to choose, but our conscious choices are dependent on our subconscious brain activity, our experience and knowledge.

We can make choices, or “exercise our will”, if you like, but within the constraints of a number of factors beyond our conscious control.  We can “pull the brake”, so to speak, and stop an action that our subconscious brain activity primed us for, but wasn’t such a good idea when a bit more thought was applied.  Our brain also uses our experience and knowledge to predict the best action to take, and because some of our knowledge and experience comes from exercising our limited choices, we can also say we have some input into our decisions.

So in this sense, Prof Ward is correct – lots of things influence people’s choices and ultimately, the choice someone makes is their choice.  I don’t make your choices for you, they are your choices.  Except that it’s inaccurate and misleading to think of our will as being entirely conscious and thought driven.  We make a lot of subconscious decisions every day, often based on subconscious priming.  Most actions we take, day in and day out, are not influenced by our conscious thought.  They may sometimes make it into our subconscious awareness, and if they do, it’s often after the fact.

Have ever had a “Why did I say that” experiences, where your brain is thinking one thing and your mouth says another?  These are times that demonstrate the difference in the systems at work in our brains, which are usually co-ordinated, but not always.  There are other demonstrations of this as well, like specific brain pathologies leading to conditions such as Alien Hand Syndrome.

These sort of conditions show that intention is not the same as action.

Sure, most of the time they’re aligned, but not always.  And this is the key to Dr Leaf’s quote of the day today – the underlying assumption is that all of our choices are reflected in our actions, when really, our choices are better thought of as our intentions (although again, it’s still not that simple … is it morally wrong if you try to hurt someone but you don’t, or is it morally wrong if you try not to hurt someone, but you do?)

Professor Ward’s quote also sets up a false dichotomy of free will into only right or only wrong, and doesn’t take into account the intellectual or developmental capacity of a person to make a choice.  Would you expect a two-year-old to judge a complex moral life or death situation?  A more practical example is should people with dementia be able to make their own financial and health-related decisions?

Most reasonable people would say, “Well, that depends …” and that’s the correct answer here.  Nothing in the real world of human morality and choice is black or white.  There is always some subtlety, some nuance.

When put in context, the black-and-white thinking and teaching of Dr Leaf is shown up as shallow and inadequate.  Her little quote of the day doesn’t prove that free will is Biblically and scientifically supported, far from it.  All it shows is that Dr Leaf’s views are narrow and blinkered, and aren’t reflective of any scientific or scriptural expertise.

Dr Leaf is welcome to her opinion, but until she gains some actual expertise, she should reconsider her choice to share it.

References

[1]        Haggard P. Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nature reviews Neuroscience 2008 Dec;9(4):934-46.
[2]        Libet B, Gleason CA, Wright EW, Pearl DK. Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain : a journal of neurology 1983 Sep;26 (Pt 3):623-42.
[3]        Soon CS, Brass M, Heinze HJ, Haynes JD. Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature neuroscience 2008 May;3(5):543-5.
[4]        Bonn GB. Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Frontiers in psychology 205;4:920.
[5]        Horga G, Maia TV. Conscious and unconscious processes in cognitive control: a theoretical perspective and a novel empirical approach. Frontiers in human neuroscience 204;6:199.

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Dr Caroline Leaf and the brain control misstatement

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“Always give credit where credit’s due.”

Dr Leaf is a communication pathologist, and a self-titled cognitive neuroscientist. Yesterday, Dr Leaf made a couple of carefully worded statements on her social media feeds, which given the quality of her previous couple of neuroscience-based factoids, is a definite improvement.

First, she said that, “Your brain is being continuously rewired throughout your life …”. Yep, I can’t disagree with that one. The brain is a very dynamic tissue, constantly remodelling the synaptic wiring to process the information it receives on a daily basis. That’s why the brain is referred to as ‘plastic’, reflecting the property of plastic to be moulded into any shape.

Her next offering sounds really good too. It’s full of encouragement, positivity and hope … the classic feel-good quote: “You can bring your brain under your control, on the path to a better, healthier, stronger, safer and happier life.” Whether it’s true or not depends on how literally you interpret it.

If you loosely interpret it, then it sounds ok. Sure, we have some control over how we act, and if we live our life in the direction dictated by our values, then we will have a better, healthier, stronger, safer and happier life. Modern psychological theory and therapies confirm this [1].

However, what Dr Leaf actually said was, “You can bring your brain under your control”. Having some control over our actions is entirely different to bringing our brain under our control. We can control some of our actions, but we don’t control our brain any more than we ‘control’ our car.

When we say that we’re ‘controlling’ the car, what we actually mean is that we are controlling the speed and direction of the car. But there are thousands of electrical and mechanical actions that take place each second that are vital for the running of the car, and that we have absolutely no direct control over. It just takes one loose nut or faulty fuse to make the car steer wildly out of control, or stop functioning entirely, and then we’re not in control at all.

In the same way, various diseases or lesions in the brain show that brain is really in control, tic disorders for example. These can range from simple motor tics (sudden involuntary movements) to complex tic disorders, such as Tourette’s (best known for the involuntary tendencies to utter obscenities). Another common example are parasomnias – a group of disorders in which people perform complex behaviours during their sleep – sleep talking, sleep walking, or sleep eating.

The fact we don’t see all of the underlying processes in a fully functional brain simply provides the illusion of control. Our brain is driving, our stream of thought just steers it a little, but it doesn’t take much to upset that veneer of control we think we possess.

Ultimately, our brain is still responsible for our action. We don’t have a separate soul that is able to control our brain. Any decisions that we make are the result of our brain deciding on the most appropriate course of action and enacting it [2] (and see also ‘Dr Caroline Leaf, Dualism, and the Triune Being Hypothesis‘ for a more in-depth discussion on the subject of dualism). Therefore, we can’t ever bring our brain under control.

This is important because if we believe that we can bring our brain under control, then by simple logical extension, we can control everything our brain is responsible for – our emotions, our feelings, our thoughts, our memory, and every single action we make. This is Dr Leaf’s ultimate guiding philosophy, though it’s not how our neurobiology works. If we were to believe that we control our thoughts and feelings, we set up an unwinnable struggle against our very nature, like trying to fight the tides.

We are not in control of all our thoughts, feelings, emotions or all of our actions, and neither do we have to be. We just need to make room for our uncomfortable emotions, feelings and thoughts, and to move in the direction of those things we value.

So if you were to take Dr Leaf at her word, she still missed the mark with her post. It sounds ok in a very general sense, but closer inspection reveals a subtle but significant error.

Giving credit where credit’s due, Dr Leaf has tried to tighten up her social media statements. It’s commendable, but unfortunately she needs to bring her underlying philosophy closer to the accepted scientific position to further improve the quality of her teaching.

References

  1. Harris, R., Embracing Your Demons: an Overview of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Psychotherapy In Australia, 2006. 12(6): 1-8 http://www.actmindfully.com.au/upimages/Dr_Russ_Harris_-_A_Non-technical_Overview_of_ACT.pdf
  2. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497

Dr Caroline Leaf and the Myth of Mind Domination

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“You control your brain … your brain does not control you!”

So says Dr Caroline Leaf, Communication Pathologist and self-titled Cognitive Neuroscientist.

You’d hope that Dr Leaf would know. She says on her website that “Since the early 1980‘s she has studied and researched the Mind-Brain connection.” And if you take what she says at face value, it sure sounds right. Of course we’re in control. My brain does what I tell it to do. Except that it actually doesn’t. Our brain has a lot more control over us than we realize.

First of all, our “free” will isn’t actually free at all, but constrained by a number of unseen, subconscious processes that are entirely dependent on our brain. It may seem like we’re in complete control of our choices, but our subconscious brain has already done most of the work for us. Even if we had complete freedom over our choices, our “free” will would still require an intact brain in order to carry out its wishes.

The “control” of our brain is very similar to our “control” when we drive a car. When we say that we’re “controlling” the car, what we actually mean is that we are controlling the speed and direction of the car. But there are thousands of electrical and mechanical actions that take place each second that are vital for the running of the car, and that we have absolutely no direct control over. It just takes one loose nut or faulty fuse to make the car steer wildly out of control, or stop functioning entirely, and then we’re not in control at all.

In the same way, various diseases or lesions in the brain show that brain is really in control. The fact we don’t see all of the underlying processes in a fully functional brain simply provides the illusion of control.

For example, there are a number of lesions of the parietal lobes within the brain that give rise to some unusual but intriguing conditions. One of which is a condition called “Alien Hand Syndrome”. Wegner describes two patients with Alien Hand Syndrome, a lady whose “left hand would tenaciously grope for and grasp any nearby object, pick and pull at her clothes, and even grasp her throat during sleep … She slept with the arm tied to prevent nocturnal misbehavior”, and a man who, “While playing checkers on one occasion, the left hand made a move he did not wish to make, and he corrected the move with the right hand; however, the left hand, to the patient’s frustration, repeated the false move. On other occasions, he turned the pages of the book with one hand while the other tried to close it; he shaved with the right hand while the left one unzipped his jacket” [1]. Alien Hand Syndrome demonstrates that our decision-making and our action sequences are controlled by two separate systems in our brains.

There are other conditions that also show that our brains control us more than we control them. A more common example are the tic disorders, such as simple motor tics (sudden involuntary movements) and complex tic disorders, such as Tourette’s (best known for the involuntary tendencies to utter obscenities). Even more common are parasomnias – a group of disorders in which people perform complex behaviours during their sleep – sleep talking, sleep walking, sleep eating. One of my patients once drove her car while asleep (Honestly, that’s no exaggeration!).

So at best, we only have partial control of our brain. Our brain is driving, our mind just steers it a little, but it doesn’t take much for that veneer of control that we think we possess.

The other way in which we appear to have control over our brain is through free will. Free will has been debated for years on philosophical grounds, but over three decades ago, Libet performed an experiment that demonstrated measurable and predictable brain activity occurring up to a full second before a test subject was consciously aware of the intention to act [2]. More recently, a study by Soon et al showed that predictable brain activity occurred up to eight seconds before a person was aware of their intention to act [3]. As Bonn says, “the gist of these findings is that our feeling of having consciously willed an act is illusory in many ways. It seems that the conscious awareness of intention that we place so much weight upon, that we naively think of as causal, is, in fact, a narrative construction that is formed well after the train of causation has been set in motion.” [4]

The Oracle explained it to Neo, “… you didn’t come here to make the choice. You’ve already made it. You’re here to try to understand why you made it.” (Matrix Reloaded, 2003)

Haggard concludes, “Modern neuroscience rejects the traditional dualist view of volition as a causal chain from the conscious mind or ‘soul’ to the brain and body. Rather, volition involves brain networks making a series of complex, open decisions between alternative actions.” [5]

This does not eliminate our capacity to choose, but frames it in a more realistic fashion. As Bonn points out, “Although we are not consciously aware of what is going on at every stage of the chain of neural events leading to action, there is room for a degree of conscious involvement if only to pull the emergency brake before it is too late. Thus, although it may not be the initial source of motivations and behavioral impulses, the part of the mind that is self-reflective; that can envision the self in causal and narrative contexts, may serve important monitoring and control functions.” [4]

Again, we have less control over our brain than we realize. We feel like we have made a choice, but more often than not, our brain already made the choice for us up to eight seconds beforehand, and the feeling of intention that we have is simply our conscious mind catching up – not making the choice, but finding a reason for why we made the choice.

It’s always nice when people who call themselves neuroscientists tell us what feels intuitively correct. In the cold, hard light of day, actual neuroscientists don’t tell us what’s intuitively correct, but what’s actually correct. It may seem like our mind is in control of our brain, but modern neuroscience confirms that our brain is the dominant force, while our mind just helps to steer a little.

References

  1. Wegner, D.M., Precis of the illusion of conscious will. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2004. 27(5): 649-59
  2. Libet, B., et al., Time of conscious intention to act in relation to onset of cerebral activity (readiness-potential). The unconscious initiation of a freely voluntary act. Brain, 1983. 106 (Pt 3): 623-42 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6640273
  3. Soon, C.S., et al., Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nat Neurosci, 2008. 11(5): 543-5 doi: 10.1038/nn.2112
  4. Bonn, G.B., Re-conceptualizing free will for the 21st century: acting independently with a limited role for consciousness. Front Psychol, 2013. 4: 920 doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00920
  5. Haggard, P., Human volition: towards a neuroscience of will. Nat Rev Neurosci, 2008. 9(12): 934-46 doi: 10.1038/nrn2497