Friday, July 31, 2015

If Free Will Does Exist, How Often Do We Employ it in Our Daily Lives?

In my post of 7/31/10 I discussed a somewhat widely-publicized study published in 2008 in Nature Neuroscience, in which researchers using brain scanners could predict people's very simple decisions seven seconds before the test subjects were even aware of what their decision was. 

The concern raised at that time was whether some totalitarian government might start arresting people based on a determination of what they were going to do at some time in the future, like the precrime unit in the movie Minority Report.

This study still comes up in philosophical discussions of a different issue - whether people even really have free will at all, or if we are more like pre-programmed robots.

The decision studied in the experiment — whether to hit a button with one's left or right hand —may not be representative of complicated choices that are more integrally tied to our sense of self-direction. Regardless, the findings raise interesting questions about the nature of self and autonomy: How free is our will? Is conscious choice just an illusion?

"Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done," said study co-author John-Dylan Haynes, a neuroscientist who was at the Max Planck Institute. Haynes updated a classic experiment by Benjamin Libet, who showed that a brain region involved in coordinating motor activity fired a fraction of a second before test subjects chose to push a button. Hayne's study showed a much large time gap between a decision and the experience of making it.

In the seven seconds before Haynes' test subjects chose to push a button, activity shifted in their frontopolar cortex, a brain region associated with high-level planning. Soon afterwards, activity moved to the parietal cortex, a region of sensory integration. Haynes' team monitored these shifting neural patterns using a functional MRI machine.

Taken together, the patterns consistently predicted whether test subjects eventually pushed a button with their left or right hand -- a choice that, to them, felt like the outcome of conscious deliberation. In fact, their decision seems to have been made before they were aware of having made a choice.

So does this mean the feeling and belief we have that we have free will is just an illusion?

Well possibly, but probably not. For one thing, as mentioned, the experiment may not reflect the mental dynamics of much more complicated and/or emotionally meaningful decisions. Also, the predictions were not 100% accurate. Might free will enter at the last moment, allowing a person to override a subconscious decision?

But there is a much bigger problem with drawing conclusions about free will from this type of experiment. We usually do not employ free will in the sense of making conscious choices when we engage in the vast majority of our usual daily activities. If individuals had to weigh the pro's and con's of their every move as they negotiated their lives, or if they had to stop and think about how to behave before doing the most routine activities, so much time would be spent on that that they would be nearly paralyzed. 

Most of our "decisions" are based on environmental cues which are processed subconsicously and which then trigger habitual behavior without requiring any thought on our parts at all. 

Through our life experiences, we all build mental models of our environment called schemas which then, when cued by environmental triggers, automatically kick in. Cues elicit a certain well-rehearsed repertoire of responses.

To understand this, think of your daily drive to work. Most drivers, while negotiating a familiar route, have at one time or another come to the realization that they had not been paying the least attention to what they had been doing for several minutes. Nonetheless, they arrived at their destination, with almost no recollection of any of the landmarks that they had passed.

Surely, we have the option to choose to make a turn that would take us away from our intended destination, but, under most circumstances, why would we waste our time even considering something like that?

A lot of predictable situations like this are handled on "automatic pilot." Gregory Bateson observed that ordinary situations and "constant truths" are assimilated and stored in deep brain structures, while conscious deliberation is reserved for changeable, novel, and unpredictable situations.

This does not mean, however, that rigid behavior cannot be overcome by conscious deliberation. In neurologically intact individuals, the more evolutionarily-advanced part of the human brain, the cerebral cortex, can override even the most reflexive of gross motor behavior.

So perhaps the brain processes described in this study are the ones that determine whether or not an individual goes on automatic pilot, or has to stop and think about potential unanticipated consequences. React in the usual habitual way, or re-assess? When it comes to pushing an inert button in a lab, the consequences for the subject are pretty predictable: there will not be any.

Unless the subject were purposely trying to foul up the experimenter's protocol, which would be a strange thing to want to do in an experiment with no social consequences to the subject, why would they extend brain energy in making a choice? They would not. They would just "go with their gut."

Therefore, from the data in this study alone, it is not possible to know which interpretation is correct: the experimenter's, or the one I just suggested.

Maybe you don't have free will, maybe you do. As I said in the earlier post, I am pretty sure I do.


  1. Free will implies choice, and choice confers responsibility, something that folks who suffer from personality disorders apparently struggle with, at least within the realm of emotional responsibility and commitment. So, how does all this square in terms of both what you have alluded to above, the neuroanatomical pathways, and if possible by extension, efficacious treatments? Perhaps there are different levels or dimensions of awareness, or perhaps it is more of a gestalt phenomenon, but, whichever the ways in which we might become increasingly aware, one still has to make it to the auto-pilot before making changes in the route, no? Schemas, auto-pilot, etc., are all efforts to describe the learned narratives, but the person still has to make the enormous leap into the unknown of accepting, nay, even before that, of contemplating that it is they who has a problem, and then hold this long enough to then become aware of more and more. I see the first step, the one which facilitates the individual to seek out therapy, as being perhaps the hardest problem, defended by the thickest walls. Thank you for posting this. It is truly remarkable to imagine that there might be a way to learn past psychological trauma for these people.

    1. Hi anonymous,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Not sure if the following answers your question, but just agreeing to come for therapy is usually an acknowledgment by patients that they have a problem themselves (although unfortunately there are plenty of docs out there who will tell them that they or their children have some sort of brain disease when that is not the case).

      In therapy I look for the environmental "triggers" to their symptoms, which are usually the same as the environmental triggers to their maladaptive schemas and the responsive behaviors which enact those mental models. And the triggers are invariably recurrent repetitive dysfunctional interactions with family members and romantic partners.

      Identifying these triggers can allow patients to stop and think when they have certain "gut" feelings. "When you feel X in the presence of Y, that is a signal."

      The biggest problem is not self-awareness, shame, or guilt - although those can certainly be problems - but fear: fear of the negative reactions by the rest of their family system when they change their usual way of responding.