Your conscious mind — believe it or not — is not in charge of your day-to-day behavior.
That claim may seem counter intuitive and contrary to your experience, but it has been demonstrated in controlled experiments time and again. By the time your conscious mind is aware of any particular decision or action, it has already been made or enacted by some other part of your brain.
Your conscious mind, however, is not without influence. There is evidence that it can guide your future behavior, even if it doesn’t determine it in the here and now.
To wrap your head around this conception of the conscious mind, think of a high-caliber athlete. With the help of a coach or trainer, she consciously and carefully trains her mind and body to react instinctively in the here and now of competition. In fact, most athletes agree, thinking consciously is probably the last thing you want to be doing in the here and now of competition.
Similarly, the conscious mind can, with time and effort, train the other parts of the brain to react in certain ways in certain circumstances. There is, of course, no guarantee that these different parts of the brain will react as trained, but the conscious mind’s past efforts can increase the probability that they will react in the future as the conscious mind had intended.
The conscious mind does not, however, set or devise its training program independently of the operations of the rest of the brain. It is only one part of a complex system that is itself reacting to a highly complex environment. Even when it sets a training program for the rest of the brain, the conscious mind is influenced by processes in the brain and factors in the environment over which it has no control or access.
The brain, then, is much more like a team of highly specialized athletes, with no independent coach to guide them. Each athlete competes with the other athletes to determine the overall behavior of the team, including its training goals. One catch: in the team of your brain, there are very many — maybe even millions — of highly specialized athletes exerting their influence over your behavior, including any training program you might devise for yourself.
And this raises a very important question. If all your thoughts, beliefs, decisions and behavior ultimately depend on neural processes and environmental factors over which you have no direct control or access, can it be said that you have anything like a free will, as it has been traditionally conceived? Is there any way for you to think, choose, or act that isn’t determined by processes outside of your control?
The research, so far, suggests that the answer to this question is “no.” More strongly, it also seems to suggest that, even if science one day discovers something like a free will “athlete” in our brains, because so much of our behavior, thoughts, beliefs, and feelings are already known to be determined by processes over which we have no control, whatever free will we might discover will be largely irrelevant.
And that conclusion, if you haven’t already guessed, is a pretty big deal. It may force us to rethink fundamental assumptions at the heart of the western moral, legal, and political tradition. Consider this ‘tiny’ example: given what we now know about the brain, does it make any sense to organize society around the idea that a person is responsible for his or her actions — if, by “responsible,” we mean that she might have chosen to do other than she has done.
Intrigued? I will look at the question of free will in more detail in one of my upcoming posts.
If you want to get started thinking about this question on your own, take a look at David Eagleman’s Incognito. It is a highly readable overview of the recent neuroscience research. Eagleman also thinks we need to rethink our approach to the sentencing of criminals, given what we now know about brains. He also offers a very useful and illuminating discussion of an approach we might usefully adopt, which is more in line with our much richer understanding of the brain.
I’m also in the process of developing a little (and free!) online course, which will explore the implications of the research described in this book (and others) from a philosophical perspective.
If you would prefer a personal guided tour through this research and its implications, let’s talk.